Air pollution killed 476,000 newborns in 2019, especially in India and sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study published in the United States that highlights the responsibility of toxic smoke emanating from fuels used for cooking in homes, in 75 % of the cases.
More than 116,000 Indian babies and 236,000 sub-Saharan Africans died in the first month of their lives due to air pollution, said the State of Global Air 2020 organization, which uses data collected by the US Health Effects Institute and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The Health Effects Institute is an independent, nonprofit research organization funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and others.
Nearly two-thirds of documented infant deaths were associated with indoor air pollution, particularly from solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and cooking animal manure.
In addition, and according to the study authors, there is growing evidence that links the exposure of mothers to pollution during pregnancy with the increased risk of babies being born prematurely or seriously underweight. Babies born with low birth weight are also more susceptible to childhood infections and pneumonia. The lungs of premature babies cannot fully develop either.
“We don’t fully understand what the mechanisms are at this stage, but it does cause reductions in the baby’s growth and ultimately birth weight. There is an epidemiological link, which is shown in various countries in various studies,” said Katherine Walker, senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute.
“Although there is a slow and steady reduction in household dependence on poor quality fuels, the air pollution they generate remains a key factor in the death” of babies, said Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute.
In total, air pollution caused 6.7 million deaths in the world in 2019, making it the fourth cause of death in the world, just below smoking and poor diet.
The authors also noted that the covid-19 pandemic, which caused more than a million deaths and economic havoc, had a positive impact on pollution. Furthermore, the sudden removal of pollution from traffic and industry had changed many people’s perception of air quality.
“Many countries have returned to blue skies and starry nights for the first time in many years” due to the sharp slowdown in activity, Greenbaum said. “Even if it didn’t last, it showed what was possible.” But these positives won’t last long, experts warned, and the likelihood of any long-term beneficial health impacts is small.
The scientists concluded that there were few signs of improvement in air pollution in the past 10 years, despite the biggest warnings about the risks of pollution in the past five years.