Banglabandha – a major inland port in northern Bangladesh – connects Bangladesh to a trade route with India, Nepal, and Bhutan. It sits next to a major industrial stone cutting and crushing operation that employs more than 20,000 workers.
From these stone quarries, crushed stone is delivered all across the country as construction aggregate for building structures.
Workers who work in these fields suffer from all kinds of respiratory diseases because of a lack of awareness and the apathy of the business owners.
Sumon Chandra Roy worked at the Tetulia Upazila Health Complex for over three-and-a-half years as a residential medical officer. In this time he has treated hundreds of stone crushing workers with respiratory and skin diseases. He is currently working at the Rangpur Medical College Hospital.
He said that most of the stone crushing workers have the incurable lung disease silicosis, caused by extended exposure to silica dust. The disease causes permanent and irreversible damage.
“Workers there crush stones for years, which means thousands of them are vulnerable to developing silicosis,” he said.
However, Tetulia Upazila Health Complex does not have the capacity to diagnose silicosis in a patient.
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“If we find symptoms of silicosis we usually refer the patient to the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital (NIDCH) in Dhaka. We do not receive any further report on their diagnosis, because there is no feedback system in operation between the hospitals,” he said.
The problem is, if the respiratory disease is diagnosed too late, then doctors in Dhaka cannot really help them. Most of them however cannot even afford to seek treatment outside of Tetulia.
“Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs.
“When small silica dust particles are inhaled, they can embed themselves deeply into the tiny alveolar sacs and ducts in the lungs, where oxygen and carbon dioxide gases are exchanged.
“There, the lungs cannot clear out the dust with mucous or coughing.
“When fine particles of crystalline silica dust are deposited in the lungs, macrophages that ingest the dust particles will set off an inflammatory response by releasing tumor necrosis factors, interleukin-1, leukotriene B4 and other cytokines.
“Normally people with chest tightness, breathing problems, and coughing and allergy visit doctors the most,” Sumon Chandra Roy explained.
Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Tetulia Md Saniul Ferdous said the government has never taken a statistical survey of the area to count the number of stone crushing workers afflicted with silicosis.
No regard for workers' health and safety
In August 2017, workers, stone crushing machine owners, stone importers, doctors, politicians, and local public representatives took part in an awareness workshop organized by the administration.
The two-day program was mainly focused on workers’ safety and health concern.
Md Saniul Ferdous, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Tetulia, told Dhaka Tribune that they have came up with some suggestions for the workers and the owners.
“The first concern was dust. The handmade machines, which are normally made in Nilphamari, should be replaced as they generate a lot of sound and dust,” he said.
Stone crushers in India use imported Chinese machines that do not cause fly ash but drain the dust as mud. The traders did not want to import those machines citing a rise in cost.
“The imported machines cost Tk8 lakh while the locally made ones cost Tk 2.8 lakh,” the UNO said.