Air Pollution can cause Preterm Births
Premature births pose severe health risks to newborns. Photo Credit: American Pregnancy Association
Now here is another adverse health effect that air pollution may cause: premature births.
According to a new scientific study conducted by The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York, in the UK, and published in the journal Environment International, outdoor air pollution leads to an estimated 2.7 million preterm births a year globally.
This figure accounts for almost a fifth (or 18%) of all preterm births, which scientists believe are caused by pregnant women’s exposure to fine particulate matter, as the tiny particle pollutants in the air are known. Measuring two and one half microns or less in width, these tiny particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract, all the way to the lungs. Long-term exposure to these invisible particles, which are emitted by diesel engines, agricultural waste-burning and other polluters, can cause or worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
“This study highlights that air pollution may not just harm people who are breathing the air directly – it may also seriously affect a baby in its mother’s womb,” said Chris Malley, a researcher in SEI’s York Centre, at the University of York, and lead author of the study. “Preterm births associated with this exposure not only contribute to infant mortality, but can have life-long health effects in survivors.”
When a baby is born premature (defined as at less than 37 weeks of gestation), she faces increased risks of long-term physical and neurological disabilities, especially if the mother is poor and lacks access to proper medical care. Premature birth is one of the biggest killers of children worldwide.
The largest contribution to global air pollutants-associated preterm births was from South Asia and East Asia, the scientists noted, with the two regions contributing around 75% of the global total. That, needless to say, should not come as a surprise, considering that urban metropolises across the region, from China to India and from Vietnam to Malaysia, are notorious for persistently high levels of air pollution.
Malaysia’s cities have long been beset by the scourge of air pollution, what with the large number of cars on the country’s roads and the annual haze from forest fires that cover much of the country for weeks and months on end. According to a recent US study, as many as 6,500 Malaysians may have died from health complications in 2015 as a result of the prolonged haze from Indonesian forest fires that covered the air across much of the country.
Considering the severe health effects of air pollution, it is alarming, albeit not that surprising, that even unborn children can be subject to them. “We have known for a long time that air pollution contributes to asthma and heart disease in adults,” said Dr Paul Jarris, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, a US-based nonprofit focused on maternal and baby health. “What I think people fail to recognise is that so many of these risk factors impact babies before they are even born.”