Like explosions in the sky

When the very air we breathe conspires to kills us, there is no way out

When I got my first ever cell-phone back in 2014, a Nokia Lumia 525, the app that I was utterly obsessed with since the very first boot was … the default weather app. 

I’m not joking. I would check the weather app every 15-20 minutes, poring over the detailed breakdowns of every relevant statistic -- from wind direction to how humid the air was -- and admire the animated backgrounds showing just how cloudy or clear the skies are outside. For some reason “partly cloudy” would always make me crack a smile. 

And it’s an obsession that continues to this day, except for far more morbid reasons. The clear, cloudy, and partly cloudy skies of 2014 have long since passed, giving way to a hitherto unknown new condition: Haze. 

Just what the hell is this “haze” anyway?  

Since I no longer have to abide by the constraints of university life, let me just quickly cite Wikipedia for this: “Haze often occurs when dust and smoke particles accumulate in relatively dry air. When weather conditions block the dispersal of smoke and other pollutants they concentrate and form a usually low-hanging shroud that impairs visibility and may become a respiratory health threat.” 

So yeah, the weather app on my phone has gone from being a quirky obsession to a ceaseless reminder that the very air I’m breathing is going to kill me well before my natural time of passing. 

Just a decade ago, if you lived in Dhaka, you could crane your head out the window and expect to see blue skies with rolling clouds in the distance. In the last five or so years (and I’m being entirely un-scientific and strictly anecdotal here) that trademark baby blue tint turned, quite rapidly, into something that I can vaguely describe as “shimmery opal dust,” which looks as if the skies were comprised entirely of multi-coloured sequins and other tiny objects which have no place in the human respiratory system. 

But how did we get here? 

“Urban development” would be the obvious answer, exacerbated by worsening weather conditions as a byproduct of the worldwide climate crisis. The continued industrialization of our planet and our lives is once again at the centre of the future downfall of civilization, and we are all hopelessly resigned to an early grave in the name of profit. 

Sorry about that. 

There are roughly 22 million witnesses to the continued deterioration of our capital city’s air, but a few of them are active participants to that end. Not everyone in the city can claim to own multiple gas-guzzling cars, and even fewer can claim to own manufacturing industries, and yet emissions from both bear the brunt of the responsibility. 

“Particulate matter” is the term given to the various micro pollutants found in unbreathable air and it is an inevitable byproduct of urbanization and development in general. However, as is the case with most of these things, there are yardsticks in place that countries and regions are supposed to abide by in order to make sure they don’t get too out of control. 

The World Health Organization (I’m sure everyone is sick to their stomachs in hearing of them by now, but humour me) has a recommended amount of the primary particulate matter, PM2.5, that any given region must never exceed in order for the air to be considered “not deadly” which is 10µg/m³. 

Bangladesh’s annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 61µg/m³; and in 2019, Dhaka PM2.5 reading stood at 83.3μg/m³ as the yearly average. For context, worldwide exposure to PM2.5 contributed to 4.1 million deaths from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections back in 2016.

So how do we get out of this?

To implement all of the recommendations wholesale risks halting Bangladesh from joining the ranks of all the other, bigger nations. But a great place to start would be tearing down all the brick kilns on the outskirts of the capital brick-by-ironic-brick. These smokestacks bellow veritable clouds of matter, both particulate and otherwise, that burn the air and our lungs 

They have got to go, most of them anyway. 

I mean, given just how bad Dhaka’s housing market has been over the past decade, who the hell needs more bricks anyway? 

Rubaiyat Kabir is Joint Editor, Op-Ed and Editorial, Dhaka Tribune.