An estimated 476,000 babies died in their first month of life due to air pollution exposure last year, according to a new report.
On top of that, 2019 air pollution contributed to around 6,670,000 deaths, meaning air pollution remains the fourth leading risk factor for early death worldwide, surpassed only by high blood pressure, smoking, and poor diet.
The findings come from the State of Global Air 2020, an annual report published by the Health Effects Institute looking at the levels and trends of air quality across the world, as well as their effects on human health. For the first time, this year’s report has looked at the effect of air pollution on the health of newborns and infants off the back of mounting evidence showing the risk of air pollution for babies.
A number of recent studies have highlighted that a pregnant woman’s exposure to PM2.5, tiny airborne particles of pollutants like soot and ash, has a tight link to an increased risk of their babies being born too small or too early. It’s also well established that pre-term birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age, known to significantly increase respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, brain damage, blood disorders, and jaundice. The risk is especially high in low-income settings, where around half of the babies born at or before 32 weeks (2 months early) die.
Of course, air pollution is not much better for adults either. According to the report, around 6.67 million premature deaths were linked to air pollution exposure last year, namely as a result of ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, strokes, and type 2 diabetes.
As pointed out in a massive long-term study in the US this week, air pollution is also clearly linked to an increased risk of several neurodegenerative diseases that affect memory and cognitive ability, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.
Much of the risks to newborn babies stem from household air pollution that’s created as a result of burning fuels for indoor fires. The problem of household air pollution is most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Asia where many households still rely on solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and animal dung for cooking and heating. As per the report, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of neonatal deaths attributable to air pollution globally were related to household air pollution, rather than outdoor pollution.
Fortunately, air pollution appears to be dropping worldwide. The report notes that the global burden of disease from household air pollution has decreased steadily over the past decade, with the total number of deaths attributable to household air pollution falling by a total of 23.8 percent.
Among the many reasons 2020 has been an unusual year, the Covid-19 lockdowns caused the air quality of many places across the world to improve. The change was only a brief blip in the history of pumping out greenhouse gases and pollutants, but the report argues that it did serve to highlight the problem of air pollution and raise questions about the future of our planet.
“While Covid-19’s effects may appear in a few short weeks, the health consequences of air pollution may take years to manifest themselves in the form of chronic diseases,” the report reads.
“Just as the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for multiple strategies to manage the pandemic, it has also provided an unexpected opportunity to understand what we can do better to address air pollution.”