Human cost of toxic tanneries

From Global development | The Guardian Thu Dec 13 2012, 02:00:01

Dhaka's leather business is booming, yet 90% of workers die before 50 and the industry causes pollution on a major scale

The smell catches you from blocks away: a throat-tightening mix of bad egg, rotten meat and acrid ammonia. Among the rickshaws, barefoot men push carts piled with grey-blue skins. In the open gutters a tide of the same unearthly blue slowly pushes through a scum of animal hair, bits of skin and rubbish. More chemical waste, oily black, is carried in open tins through the narrow, busy alleys on poles bent over men's shoulders.

This is Hazaribagh. The name means "a thousand gardens", but there are no flowers here. The slum is the most polluted place in Dhaka, itself one of the most polluted cities in the world. Last month, 111 people died in a Bangladesh factory making cheap clothing for western brands. That was a historic disaster; this industry in the centre of the country's capital is a slower, but far more lethal catastrophe. According to the World Health Organisation, 90% of Hazaribagh's tanning factory workers will die before they're 50. Half - some 8,000 - have respiratory disease already. Many of the workers are children.

Thousands more Bangladeshi lives are blighted by the millions of litres of waste that pour, untreated, from the tannery district gutters, through a crowded housing area, and into Dhaka's main river. Levels of chromium, lead, organohalogens and other toxins exceeding statutory maximum levels are entering the water and poisoning Hazaribagh's wells. The chemicals travel downriver, into rice paddy and the Bay of Bengal ponds where prawns are farmed for export.

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