The air’s filthy, and it’s killing babies

The air’s filthy, and it’s killing babies

Representative image. Credit: Getty Images

The State of Global Air 2020 report draws attention to the immense vulnerability of new-born babies to air pollution. It causes the death of nearly half-a-million babies in the first month of their lives, the report points out. Most of these deaths are in the developing world. India accounts for the largest number – nearly a quarter of the global total -- of such deaths; around 1.16 lakh infants died due to exposure to air pollution in 2019.

Nigeria and Pakistan stood second and third with 67,900 and 56,500 such deaths. A baby’s vulnerability to air pollution begins long before she is born. Exposure of an expectant mother to air pollution impacts the foetus and results in premature birth and low birth weight. These are important factors linked to high infant mortality. But air pollution’s impact goes way beyond survival during the first month. Even if a baby manages to survive, exposure to air pollutants have lasting impact on her brains, lungs and other organs and thus affects her general health, movement, capacity for thinking and learning and subsequently earning a livelihood.

India struggles with a high infant mortality rate and while this is declining, it remains a cause for serious concern. Hitherto, we have focused on the nutrition of the expectant mother and sought to enable her access to skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetric care to ensure survival of the new-born. But we haven’t tackled exposure of expectant mothers or new-borns to air pollutants.

Again, the world has tended to focus on air pollution’s impact on those with respiratory problems or the elderly, but we have overlooked the vulnerability of infants to this killer. The report says that indoor pollution is a greater killer of infants. Although millions of homes have benefited from the increasing use of cooking gas and solar or electrical stoves, millions more are yet to be freed from the dangers of cooking on open fires and inhaling smoke in closed rooms. The poorest households continue to use charcoal, wood and animal dung for cooking, and they do so in poorly ventilated homes. The government must step up implementation and effectiveness of the Ujwala Yojana scheme to protect the lives of its youngest citizens.

The report’s findings are pertinent to the Covid-19 pandemic. Weak lungs are vulnerable to the coronavirus. Thus, air pollution’s impact on infants could make them highly susceptible to Covid-19, especially in the winter months. India and the world cannot ignore or defer dealing with the problems highlighted by the State of Global Air 2020 report.