Air Pollution is the 4th Leading Health Risk Factor

Study Finds Little or No Progress in the Most Polluted Regions Over Past 10 Years

According to the “State of Global Air 2020 Report” from the Health Effects Institute, the first-ever comprehensive analysis of air pollution’s global impact on newborns, outdoor and household particulate matter pollution contributed to the deaths of nearly 500,000 infants in their first month of life.

Nearly two-thirds of those deaths are caused by solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and animal dung for cooking. Long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 6.7 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases worldwide in 2019.

For the youngest infants, most deaths were related to complications from low birth weight and preterm birth. Overall, air pollution is now the 4th highest cause of death among all health risks, ranking just below smoking and poor diet.

Although the full links between air pollution and COVID-19 are not yet known, there is clear evidence linking air pollution and increased heart and lung disease, creating a growing concern that exposures to high levels of air pollution, especially those commonly experienced in countries of South and East Asia, could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19. “The interaction of COVID-19 with the continued global rise in chronic illness and related risk factors, including obesity, high blood sugar, and outdoor air pollution, over the past 30 years has created a perfect storm, fueling COVID-19 deaths,” says Dr. Christopher Murray, Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, who led the GBD research.

Although sustained policy actions in some countries have produced modest air quality improvements, the report finds that there has been little or no sustained progress in the most polluted countries of South Asia and Africa. While China has made initial progress in reducing air pollution, countries in South Asia, including Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, have continued to experience very high ambient air pollution levels.

The analysis found that China and India together were responsible for over half of the total global attributable deaths, accounting for over 3.5 million deaths from total air pollution in 2019.

“An infant’s health is critical to the future of every society, and this newest evidence suggests an especially high risk for infants born in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,” says Dan Greenbaum, President of HEI. “Although there has been a slow and steady reduction in household reliance on poor-quality fuels, the air pollution from these fuels continues to be a key factor in the deaths of these youngest infants.”

Infants in the first month of life are already at a vulnerable stage. But a growing body of scientific evidence from multiple countries links particulate matter air pollution exposure during pregnancy to low birth weight and preterm birth. These latter conditions, both of which cause serious complications, already account for the vast majority of deaths in the neonatal period (1.8 million in 2019).The report also highlighted the ongoing challenge posed by exposure to household air pollution from the burning of solid fuels — and not just for infants. Despite a reduction of 11% over the last decade, 49% of the world’s population — 3.8 billion people — were exposed to household air pollution because of cooking in 2019. Most of them live in just 17 countries.

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