Air pollution caused deaths of over a million newborn babies in the UK last year, study says

Air pollution caused 4 per cent of babies’ deaths in the UK last year, according to the first global study to look at the impact of poor air quality on newborns.

The discovery is reported in the State of Global Air 2020 report, which examined data on deaths around the world alongside extensive research that links air pollution with health problems.

Over the past decade, it has been suggested that women who are chronically exposed to particulate air pollution are more likely to have babies born too small (low birth weight) or

too early (preterm birth).

Nearly two-thirds of the 500,000 deaths of infants documented were associated with indoor air pollution, particularly arising from solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and animal dung for cooking.

Dan Greenbaum, President of HEI, 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."

In 2019, about 2.42 million newborns died in the first 0 to 27 days of life from all causes. Of these, low birth weight and preterm births, combined with the health conditions that can often follow them, accounted for about 1.78 million deaths.

According to the report, many of these risk factors are influenced by some of the same sociodemographic factors that increase a woman’s risk of being exposed to high levels of air pollution. As a result, women in countries with low levels of sociodemographic development are especially at risk for adverse birth outcomes

Katherine Walker, principal scientist at the Health Effects Institute, which published the report, said: “We don’t totally understand what the mechanisms are at this stage, but there is something going on that is causing reductions in baby growth and ultimately birth weight. There is an epidemiological link, shown across multiple countries in multiple studies.”

The report concentrates on data from 2019, so does not include the impacts of the lockdown policies around the world in 2020.

Some studies have suggested that people exposed to air pollution could have a higher risk of death from Covid-19, but these are early findings.

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.

Meanwhile, the global average reductions in the percentage of populations exposed to household air pollution from 2010 to 2019 mask important differences among individual countries.

Although sustained policy actions in some countries have produced modest air quality improvements, the report finds that there has been little or no sustained progress in the most polluted countries of South Asia and Africa.

Several countries in Africa with fast-growing populations actually experienced net increases in the numbers of people exposed to household air pollution, despite reductions in the percentages of their populations using solid fuels for cooking.

While China has made initial progress in reducing air pollution, countries in South Asia including Nepal,Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India have continued to experience very high levels of ambient air pollution levels.

The analysis found that China and India together were responsible for over half of the total global attributable deaths, accounting for more than 3.5 million deaths from total air pollution in 2019.