Bangladesh’s economy has evolved and grown rapidly in recent decades, helping to raise standards of living and GDP. However, this growth has also created new pollution control and environmental health challenges, including exposures to lead. The average concentration of lead in children’s blood in Bangladesh is estimated to be among the highest in the world at approximately 8 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). This concentration is significantly above the US CDC “reference level” of 5 μg/dL that triggers government intervention and case management for a child in the United States.
An estimated 35 million children in Bangladesh (62% of children under 14) have blood lead levels above 5ug/dl, and 21 million children (46% of children under 14) above 10ug/dl. The economic cost of lead exposures in Bangladesh is estimated to be US $15.9B annually, which is roughly equal to half the economic output from the country’s textile and clothing manufacturing sector.
Research by Pure Earth, the University of Dhaka Department of Geology, the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research Bangladesh, and Stanford University has revealed two important sources of lead exposures in Bangladesh: informal recycling of used lead acid batteries (e.g. automobile batteries), and consumption of spices that have been adulterated with lead.
35 million children under age 14 have elevated blood lead levels.
Pure Earth has conducted 270 assessments of lead-contaminated sites in Bangladesh, nearly all of which are the result of informal used lead-acid battery (ULAB) smelting. The data from these assessments has been shared broadly among stakeholders and has been featured in the Bangladesh country environmental assessment reports of both the World Bank and USAID, which has raised the profile of the issue nationally and brought new partners to the table. Pure Earth now helps coordinate a broad and growing coalition of stakeholders working on lead issues in Bangladesh.
In 2018, Pure Earth completed the first known lead remediation in Bangladesh in the community of Kathgora, which resulted in a 35% decline in children’s blood lead levels (nearly to the estimated background blood lead level). Pure Earth is designing a second remediation to take place in the fall of 2020 in collaboration with the Dutch environmental engineering firm Tauw.
In 2016, Pure Earth with local partner in Bangladesh, the University of Dhaka Department of Geology, began identifying toxic hot spots. Within just 6 months, they found 115 contaminated sites, then growing to 270 assessed toxic sites. Based on this data, the World Bank estimates there are more than 1,000 such informal ULAB smelting sites across the country.
One of those sites, in the community of Kathgora, stood out as an exceptional candidate for a demonstration lead risk-reduction project due to the high concentration of lead in surface soils, the fact that children played directly on lead-contaminated waste, and the project’s capacity to serve as a proof-of-concept for replication by the government of Bangladesh. The Kathgora project aimed to dramatically reduce lead exposures for the 300 residents, including 90 children under age 7.
Two plots of land where workers broke apart and smelted hundreds of car batteries over several months were cleaned up with contaminated materials removed or buried. All homes and structures in the village were decontaminated and walkways were scraped and capped with bricks or clean soil.
- Bangladesh Department of Environment
- University of Dhaka
- Oak Foundation
Blood lead testing before and after the intervention showed levels reducing in children and adults.
- Lead Cleanup in Kathgora
- Report on Chemical Contamination; Health and Pollution Action Plan
- TSIP Training Dhaka
Read more about our work in Bangladesh:
- Children’s Lead Levels Fall Following Cleanup (September 2019)
- Looking for Lead? No Problem! (June 2017)
- Over 6,000 used lead battery recycling operations run across Bangladesh, The Financial Press (February 2021)
- Strictly regulate used lead-acid battery recycling: Experts to gov’t, The Business Standard (February 2021)
- ‘Regulate recycling of used lead-acid batteries’, The Daily Sun (February 2021)