Hazaribagh and Kamrangichar, Bangladesh
Hazaribagh district is in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the most densely populated city in the world. Situated on the Buringanga River, the area is famous for its hundreds of leather processing facilities. In addition to housing more than 90% of Bangladesh’s tanneries, Hazaribagh is home to 185,000 people, 8,000 – 12,000 of whom work in the tanneries themselves. Human Rights Watch estimated 150 tanneries in the four-square kilometer area of Hazaribagh. Serious occupational and environmental hazards put community members at risk of severe long-term health impacts. Water, soil and air are all polluted by tannery operations, which effectively operated without any pollution control mechanisms to protect workers or the surrounding residents. Roughly 80% of Bangladesh’s leather production is exported. Multiple environmental and human rights groups have raised concerns over the severe environmental conditions surrounding tanning industries in Dhaka for more than a decade.
Kamrangichar district is adjacent to Hazaribagh and is home to hundreds of informal recycling and factory operations. Plastics are recycled to make inexpensive children’s toys, sandals, balloons, and household items. Scrap metal is melted down to make kitchen pots and utensils. There are also small textile and foundry operations. Like Hazaribagh, Kamrangichar is home to thousands of workers and families who are exposed to hazardous environmental conditions.
In 2014, TIFO completed a pilot assessment of the leather tannery community in Hazaribagh and of the small-scale factories in Kamrangirchar. TIFO conducted an environmental assessment to identify and characterize the degree and type of environmental contamination and occupational hazards in both communities and outlined initial interventions for reducing related morbidities and risks.
TIFO's work included a comprehensive literature review, data gaps/critical pathways analysis, and identifying contaminants of concern, critical data needs, and a proposed strategy for acquiring the missing information.
After a site visit, TIFO prepared a risk assessment for both communities and a conceptual site model that highlighted the most vulnerable groups in Hazaribagh. The lack of separation between occupational and residential settings, absence of any occupational safety precautions, and generally poor working conditions were highlighted in both communities. Further, TIFO found that the environmental contamination in Hazaribagh puts workers and residents at high risk of exposure to a suite of toxicants. People are exposed to contaminated air, water, and soil on a daily basis. Exposures occur in the workplace, at home, and during day-to-day activities. There is little difference between many of the occupational exposures experienced by tannery workers and residential exposures experienced by those living in Hazaribagh; the sub-standard housing, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and lack of separation between work and home result in intense exposures with no reprieve.
The conceptual site model identified the child workers and child residents as the most vulnerable populations in Hazaribagh. While more information is needed to better inform a response to the most critical exposures, the team highlighted the risk of spending excessive resources attempting to complete a full site-based risk when preventative action is eminently needed to protect the most severely affected members of the community.
Since TIFO’s 2014 investigation, the Bangladesh government began constructing a central treatment facility for tanneries at another site in Savar. In 2017, the government relocated most of the tanneries to the new facility. While this is an important step, the new site’s treatment operations are not yet active, resulting in widespread contamination of Savar and leaving extensive legacy contamination in Hazaribagh that continues to impact the health of residents.