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Air pollution killed 6.6 million people last year, including 500,000 babies — here’s where and why

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By Rachel Koning Beals

Air pollution last year caused the premature death of nearly half a million babies.

The State of Global Air 2020 , released Wednesday, reflects for the first time a deeper dive by scientists into the effects of pollution on babies in the womb and in their early vulnerable days and weeks after birth.

Most of the deaths of this age group were in the developing world, data shows, and are part of an expanding body of research tying climate change and pollution to public health issues , so far mostly tracking the impacts of dirty air on older people.

The report  showed dirty air was responsible for 6.67 million deaths in total worldwide.

The researchers offer this interactive tool to track, by country and pollutant, the health impacts.

Exposure to airborne pollutants by mom can cause a premature birth or low birth weight, factors associated with higher infant mortality. Babies born in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia face the highest risk, says the report, a collaboration between the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project. Premature births or low birth weight are linked to a higher risk of lower-respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, and other serious infections as well as brain damage and inflammation, blood disorders and jaundice.

Nearly two-thirds of the 500,000 deaths of infants documented were associated with indoor air pollution, which the report linked to cooking using solid fuels such as charcoal, wood and animal dung. These practices have been in use for centuries but closer population density in modern times is adding to the effect, as are the higher number of emitting cars in the developing world. More complete tracking of cause of death is on the rise as well.

President Trump cited lax pollution reduction by developing nations including India and Brazil and by advancing industrial nations, including China, in his withdrawal of the U.S. from the voluntary Paris climate pact . Other developed nations backing the effort have been critical of the U.S. move.

Read: Mega-polluter China sets date for curbing emissions, dialing up the pressure on the U.S.

The State of Global Air concentrates on data from 2019, so does not include the effect of lockdown policies due to COVID-19 this year.  The authors estimated said the pandemic would have had an impact on air quality and deaths from air pollution, but these effects were not yet officially tracked for the report.

But developments from the pandemic can also inform policy moving forward, they said.

“The air cleared in many places, opening vistas not seen in decades. At the same time, this global health emergency has laid bare vulnerabilities and disparities in our states of health, our health care systems, and our communities — conditions that may indeed have been worsened by disparities in both current exposures and years of prior exposure to air pollution,” the researchers said, stressing that more study is needed.

“The pandemic has nonetheless strengthened the case for accelerating efforts to achieve the lasting reductions in air pollution needed to remove it as one of the major risk factors for early death and disability around the world,” they added.

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