What plastic trash is to the ocean and carbon emissions to the air, dyes used in textile production are polluting rivers in Asia, turning them inky black.
North of the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, Haji Muhammad Abdus Salam told a CNN reporter about a time before the river in his home of Savar became a sinister dark ribbon of pollution running through the country.
“When I was young there were no garment factories here. We used to grow crops and loved to catch different kinds of fish. The atmosphere was very nice,” he said. “There are no fish now. The water is so polluted that our children and grandchildren cannot have the same experience.”
One of Abdus Salam’s neighbors, a 55-year-old man who has raised his family in Savar for the last 18 years, said the problem is far worse than missed opportunities to fish and play. Two of his children and his grandson were sent away after the potential health issues became evident.
“The kids get sick if they stay here,” the man said.
Polluted water is killing people who live along the black rivers, turning the shallow wells many residents rely on into poisonous pits.
Even during the rainy monsoon season, the water is thick and black, like tar, said Ridwanul Haque, chief executive of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho. And during the dry season, fumes from the toxic sludge permeate the air for miles with the acrid smell of death.
Synthetic nitrogen-based ago dyes are used to create vibrant colors in textiles but they also degrade under the right conditions, releasing harmful aromatic amines, CNN reports. These substances are used in pesticides and pharmaceuticals and have been linked to cancer.
European Union, China, Japan, India and Vietnam have banned the use and import of aromatic amines. In Bangladesh, garment factory workers are seen wading in pools of the stuff as they dye batches of bright red and yellow.
“This water causes sores on the body,” said Ma Jun, Chinese environmentalist and founder of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).
Moreover, most garment factory workers are not supplied with adequate protection from chemical exposure.
“People don’t have gloves or sandals, they’re barefoot, they don’t have masks, and they are working with dangerous chemicals or dyes in a congested area. They are like sweat factories,” Haque said.
Pollution from garment manufacturing makes up 20% of global industrial water pollution. In the U.S. regulations set by governmental bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency hold companies responsible for such pollution. In Bangladesh where such pollution is unregulated, or regulations go unenforced, it’s not uncommon to see manufacturers dumping waste directly into local water systems.
These water systems once provided drinking water and a source of food for locals. Now tainted with carcinogens, toxic metals and inorganic dyes, Bangladeshis are forced to either travel miles more to find clean water or attempt to filter the noxious stew.
“People don’t have any other option so they have to…drink (from) it,” Haque said. “They are hopeless, they don’t have money to install a filter or drill (for) deep water.”
Those that manage to choke the polluted water down run a high risk of bringing on gastrointestinal problems and skin disease.
While it’s true he fashion industry has brought work to Bangladeshis, now contributing to 20% of the country’s GDP, it is not self-sustaining. Bangladesh produced $34 billion worth of garments in 2019, the World Trade Organization reports, all exported to wealthier countries like the United States and the UK. But the industry has also marred the landscape with polluting factories and destroyed the habitats of native flora and fauna.
The Bangladesh government is aware of the problem, and insists that heightened regulation can help restore the health of its polluted waterways.
“Monitoring and enforcement activities…are playing a vital role in combating the pollution caused by illegal polluting industries,” Bangladesh Minister Shahab Uddin said in an e-mail to CNN. “We have a policy and legal framework in place to address the environmental pollution issues of the country.”
Uddin referenced strengthened water quality monitoring requirements, reorganized treatment plants, revised conservation and environmental laws, and fines for heavy polluters as deterrents the government has considered, in addition to calling in international organizations for help.
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.