Air pollution killed nearly 350,000 infants in their first month of life last year alone, and poor indoor air quality—such as that caused by open-fire cooking—was a lethal factor in two-thirds of these cases, says the latest State of Global Air report.
By harming babies in the womb and contributing to low birthweights, toxic air puts babies at risk even before they are born, reports The Guardian. “Medical experts have warned for years of the impacts of dirty air on older people and on those with health conditions, but are only beginning to understand the deadly toll on babies in the womb.” Conditions caused by air pollution that contribute to higher infant mortality include incomplete lung development, and a higher susceptibility to infections and pneumonia.
“There is an epidemiological link, shown across multiple countries in multiple studies,” said Katherine Walker, principal scientist at the Health Effects Institute (HEI), which published the report with support from the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. However, the precise physiological mechanisms remain unclear.
UCLA epidemiology professor Beate Ritz told The Guardian that the levels of indoor air pollution common in many cities across Africa, India, and Southeast Asia is like “that which we had 150 years ago in London and other places, where there were coal fires indoors.” Even for the children who survive these risks in infancy, the dirty air can cause grave harm, leaving lasting damage to the brain and other internal organs.
“Just surviving is not enough,” she said. “We need to reduce air pollution because of the impact on all these organs too.”
The Guardian adds that while the problem of indoor air pollution is an old one, outdoor air pollution from cars and factories is now growing ever more poisonous, especially as urban population densities grow.
“These factors mean there is now no escape from dirty air, from morning to night, for hundreds of millions of people,” so that “at least 6.7 million deaths globally in 2019 were from long-term exposure to air pollution, a factor raising the risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, and other chronic lung diseases.”
The HEI report also found that air quality has improved very little since 2010, despite calls for change and increasing interest in public health. “Air pollution is now the fourth-highest cause of death globally, just below smoking and poor diet,” The Guardian writes.
In related news, Euractiv reports that a study comparing air pollution exposure in Polish and French children found a shocking difference between the two groups: those who live in Rybnik, Poland, “were between three and nine times more exposed to air pollution” than those who live in Strasbourg, France.
“Tests on children in Rybnik and Strasbourg found the Polish children had an average of 425% more black carbon, a carcinogenic substance linked to the burning of fossil fuels, in their urine,” Euractiv writes.
Yet Poland is “extremely reliant” on coal, the news agency notes, “with 74% of its electricity coming from coal power stations in 2018.” In 2019, the country was the highest consumer of coal in Europe.