Feb. 16, 2017
Air pollution could be a contributing factor in millions of premature births around the world each year, a new report has found.
Nearly 15 million babies are born annually before reaching 37 weeks gestation. Premature birth is the leading cause of death among children younger than five years old, and can cause lifelong learning disabilities, visual and hearing problems, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.
Researchers for the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Colorado, have concluded that as many as 3.4 million premature births across 183 countries could be associated with fine particulate matter, a common air pollutant, with sub-Saharan Africa, north Africa and south and east Asia most impacted by the issue.
“Preterm birth and associated conditions are one of the biggest killers of children in the US and worldwide,” said Dr Paul Jarris, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, a US-based nonprofit focused on maternal and baby health. “Yet, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about what causes preterm birth, so every bit of information we can get is helpful.”
Are you at risk? How pollution increases your chance of death – interactive
“We have known for a long time that air pollution contributes to asthma and heart disease in adults,” said Jarris. “What I think people fail to recognise is that so many of these risk factors impact babies before they are even born.”
“By showing in our study that 18% of preterm births are associated with air pollution, we are quantifying the health impacts of fine particulate matter on babies before they are born,” said Chris Malley, a researcher in SEI’s York Centre, at the University of York and lead author on the study.
Each year, around one in every 10 babies worldwide are born prematurely, according to the WHO. Africa and south Asia bear a disproportionate burden of premature births, accounting for 60% of all premature births globally. That region also dominated SEI’s report of premature birth associated with air pollution.
A similar study conducted in the US found that air pollution had a costly impact on unborn children, estimating that the economic impacts cost $4.33bn in 2010.