Air pollution could potentially be a leading driver of premature births and low birthweight around the world, according to new research published in PLOS Medicine Tuesday, adding to the growing body of evidence exposing the hidden costs of the climate crisis.
Air pollution likely contributed to some 6 million preterm births and nearly 3 million underweight babies born globally in 2019, according to the peer-reviewed analysis from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the University of Washington.
Indoor air pollution, primarily from cooking stoves, accounted for two-thirds of these births, the researchers found, mostly in poorer countries in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where indoor pollution is most common.
The number of preterm births and low birthweight babies could be slashed by nearly 78% if pollution were minimized in these regions, the researchers found.
However, air pollution can still pose a significant health risk in wealthier countries, the researchers warned, estimating around 12,000 U.S. premature births in 2019 linked to outdoor pollution.
The findings highlight the fact that pollution affects infants, as well as adults, explained lead author Rakesh Ghosh, a public health researcher at UCSF, adding it “should now be considered a major driver” of illness and death in infants.
15 million. That’s how many babies are born too early each year, according to the World Health Organization, counted as before 37 weeks of gestation. That’s more than 1 in 10 babies. Approximately 1 million children die each year from complications associated with premature birth, the WHO said, and it is the leading cause of death in children under 5. The infants that do survive often “face a lifetime of disability,” the agency said. This burden is not shared equally around the world, however, and “almost all of these babies survive” in high-income countries.
Earlier research from the same team found that air pollution contributed to some 500,000 infant deaths in 2019. It adds to growing research revealing even small amounts of air pollution can have profound effects on our minds and bodies. Higher rates and more severe instances of suicide, depression and schizophrenia have all been linked to air pollution, long term exposure has been linked with reduced intelligence, especially among men, and research suggests tens of thousands of people die each year due to exposure to pollution from wildfires. The WHO estimates air pollution is responsible for some 7 million premature deaths every year and reduces the quality of life for millions more. The extent of the burden places air pollution on par with other major health threats like tobacco smoking and an unhealthy diet, the WHO said.