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Millions of premature births linked to air pollution

Many previous studies have linked various types of ambient air pollution with poor pregnancy and birth outcomes all over the world. However, a new study published in the journal PLoS Medicine is the first to quantify the effects of indoor air pollution, mostly from cooking stoves, on key indicators of pregnancy.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 90 percent of people live with polluted outdoor air, and half the global population is also exposed to indoor air pollution from the combustion of coal, wood and dung inside homes. 

The UC San Francisco and University of Washington global burden of disease study is a meta-analysis that looks at how indoor and outdoor air pollution affects gestational age at birth, reduction in birth weight, incidence of low birth weight and preterm birth. 

The study was conducted with researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington and found that air pollution probably contributed to around 6 million premature births and 3 million underweight babies in 2019. Both these factors are major risks for infant mortality throughout the world.

“The air pollution-attributable burden is enormous, yet with sufficient effort, it could be largely mitigated,” said lead author Rakesh Ghosh, PhD, a prevention and public health specialist at the Institute for Global Health Sciences at UCSF.

Preterm birth rates are the highest in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and this is also where indoor air pollution is common. The researchers concluded that the global incidence of preterm birth and low birthweight could be reduced by almost 78 percent if air pollution were minimized these regions.

The study also found that outdoor air pollution poses a significant risk in more developed countries. In the United States, for example, outdoor air pollution is estimated to have contributed to almost 12,000 preterm births in 2019. 

Previously, the same research team found that, in 2019, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 500,000 newborns within the first month of life.

“With this new, global and more rigorously generated evidence, air pollution should now be considered a major driver of infant morbidity and mortality, not just of chronic adult diseases,” said Ghosh. “Our study suggests that taking measures to mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution levels will have significant health co-benefit for newborns.”   

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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