WRITTEN BY: Ashly Bloxon
BANGLADESH.— There are about 200 leather tanneries in the Hazaribagh district of Dhaka in Bangladesh. The tannery industries of Hazaribagh are situated in the densely populated residential areas of the district.
Tanning and making leather involves the application of numerous chemicals, most of which are potentially harmful to the workers, environment and the public.
Typically tanners need to treat their effluents before they discharge it into the environment, however, this practice is not followed in Hazaribagh. Tanneries in this district release around 21, 600 square meters of liquid waste into the rivers, gutters and canals that run alongside in the roads of Hazaribagh and through Dhaka.
Thousands of people depend on the river daily for bathing, washing clothes, irrigation of food and transportation of goods. The river has suffered extreme biodiversity loss and has now turned black.
The homes of Hazaribagh are built very close to the streams that are regularly being contaminated by the hazardous discharges of these tanneries.
The chemicals end up forming coloured ponds and lakes of toxic waste in residential areas and are causing devastating harm to the nearly 20,000 people who work and live in the tanning district. A large majority of the people living in Hazaribagh are suffering from chronic respiratory problems and skin diseases.
Most of the workers in these tanneries work in primitive conditions. The workers do not wear any protective clothing as they walk around the tanneries handling corrosive chemicals. Most of them do not wear boots or gloves and handle the machinery with bare hands. No one wears a mask, and there are no safety fountains for eye-washing.
Workers process raw hides with toxic chemicals such as chromium, sulfur and manganese. They often handle the leather skins soaked with acids and dyes with their bare hands in poorly ventilated tanneries where the only light coming in is through cracks and openings in the walls.
“I had to go to the doctor several times,” says Sanaur Rahman, a leather chemical engineer who has since quit his job at a leather tannery, “There was no ventilation in my plant, we were breathing polluted air.”
In March of 2010, three workers were reported to have died of chemical inhalation.
Despite the pollution the leather industry continues to operate without any regulation.
The government has failed to enforce environmental protection laws. The Environmental Conservation Rule of 1997, mandates that every industrial unit should have its own effluent treatment plant, the government has yet to implement it.
The enforcement of these laws would surely have a considerable effect on the condition of the Buriganga river as well as improving the health and safety of the population. Many hope public pressure and media scrutiny will help change this.
In 2003, a relocation project was launched to move the tannery district to a remote location near Savar, north of Dhaka, where all tanneries would share a Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP).
In January 2010, an effort was made to start cleaning the Buriganga’s riverbed. The Buriganga Cleansing Project aims to remove 1,000 tonnes of sludge from the Buriganga riverbed each month, however the tanning industry continues to feed 25,000 tonnes of untreated wastes and 40,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals into the river everyday.