Featured image: People walk on the Rajpath on a smoggy day in New Delhi, India, November 1, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis
New Delhi: Close to 116,000 infants in India died within the first month of being born due to air pollution, a study by a US-based think tank has found.
Over half of the infant deaths were caused by PM 2.5 (pollutants or particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns in size) in the air while the rest were attributed to household air pollution caused by the use of solid fuels for cooking, according to the State of Global Air 2020 report published by Health Effects Institute.
The report, which claims to be the first comprehensive analysis of air pollution’s impact on newborns, found that air pollution is estimated to have contributed to 6.67 million deaths globally in 2019. The study also said that air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor – behind high blood pressure, tobacco and poor diet – for premature deaths worldwide and accounted for nearly 12% of total deaths. Considered separately, ambient particulate matter or PM2.5 was ranked as the sixth leading risk factor while household air pollution ranked ninth.
The report also said there is clear evidence linking air pollution and increased heart and lung disease, creating a growing concern that exposures to high levels of air pollution could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19.
The study also found that for infants, most deaths were linked to complications like low birth weight and premature birth resulting directing from mothers’ exposure to air pollution during pregnancy. A Brookings India study also examined the effect of outdoor air pollution on child health in India.
Speaking to IndiaSpend, Dean Spears, founding executive director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics said, “By limiting the growth and development of babies and children, air pollution lowers their lifelong health and productivity. Yet, the consequences of air pollution for children do not get the attention that they deserve.”
The president of the Health Effects Institute, Dan Greenbaum, in a statement, said, “An infant’s health is critical to the future of every society, and this newest evidence suggests an especially high risk for infants born in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.”
Air pollution, as per the study, contributed to nearly 500,000 infant deaths globally. One-fifth of all neonatal deaths in India were attributed to air pollution whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 30% of infant deaths were traced to air pollution-related causes.
As other studies have also pointed out, exposure to particulate air pollution during pregnancy is linked to low birth rate and premature birth, which in turn lead to a vast majority of infant deaths. Additionally, risks arising from exposure to air pollution during pregnancy could continue to affect children as they remain at a higher risk for lower-respiratory and other infections throughout their childhood.
“Although the biological reasons for this linkage are not fully known, it is thought that air pollution may affect a pregnant woman, her developing foetus, or both through pathways similar to those of tobacco smoking, which is a well-known risk factor for low birth weight and preterm birth,” the study said.
Kalpana Balakrishnan, the director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s Centre for Advanced Research on Air Quality, Climate and Health, said that, as opposed to individual risks like smoking or anaemia, when it came to air pollution, “a very large population is at risk because of high overall exposure”.
Speaking to IndiaSpend, Balakrishnan added that addressing air pollution’s impact on foetuses in the womb was important “not only because of the high prevalence of low birth weight, pre-term birth and child growth deficits but because it allows the design of strategic interventions that can be directed at these vulnerable groups.”
Referring to policies in India to combat air pollution, Dean Spears said that “too many policymakers announce showy policies each winter that attract public attention without actually resolving this enduring threat.”
Exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 caused 980,000 deaths – or 60% of all air pollution attributable deaths – in India in 2019, a jump of about 61% between 2010 and 2019, according to the report. India’s age-standardised PM 2.5-attributable deaths was as high as 96 deaths per 100,000 people – higher than the current death rate of nearly 75 per 100,000 population for several major infectious diseases.
Across the world, there were 4.14 million deaths attributable to air pollution in 2019 or 86 deaths per 100,000 people.
South Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, featured among the top 10 nations with the highest PM2.5 exposures in 2019 in the report.
“All of these countries experienced increases in outdoor PM2.5 levels between 2010 and 2019,” the report stated, adding that since 2010, more than 50 million fewer people have been exposed to household air pollution.
The study also concluded that globally, 2.31 million deaths were attributable to exposure to household air pollution. In India, long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to more than 1.67 million annual deaths, across all age groups in 2019.
“Long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases, in India in 2019,” the report said.
“Although there has been slow and steady reduction in household reliance on poor-quality fuels, the air pollution from these fuels continues to be a key factor in the deaths of these youngest infants,” Greenbaum said.
While several measures like making cleaner cooking fuels available had been adopted to reduce household air pollution, steps to tackle outdoor air pollution were stagnant. The report also said that in 2019, Indians were exposed to the most air pollution ever.
However, on the global scale, diseases from household air pollution have decreased steadily over the past decade and total deaths attributable to household air pollution fell by 23.8%.
Even so, 49% of the world’s population or 3.8 billion people continue to be exposed to household air pollution from the burning of solid fuels.