New research finds a strong link between air pollution and babies born prematurely

Over nine hundred pregnant women practice Yoga together in China.
Over nine hundred pregnant women practice Yoga together in China.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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In a far-ranging study analyzing data from 183 countries, researchers have pointed to a strong link between air pollution and preterm babies, estimating that one in five babies (pdf, p.4) are born prematurely because of their mothers’ exposure during pregnancy to high levels of PM2.5, fine particulate matter that can reach deep into the respiratory tract.

Their study, published Feb. 10 in the journal Environment International, provides the first global estimate of preterm babies linked to PM2.5. More than 3.4 million premature babies (pdf, p.1), or infants born before 37 weeks, were associated with PM2.5 in 2010, according to data analyzed by a research team led by University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute. The most impacted areas were sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and South and East Asia, which made up the largest portion of preterm births associated with PM2.5.

As many as 1.6 million preterm births in South Asia in 2010 was linked to PM2.5, followed by East Asia with 473,000 such cases (p.3, table 1). A recent study found that India is on track to soon surpass China for the highest number of air pollution-related deaths. In 2014, more than 1 billion deaths in each country were linked to exposure of PM2.5.

Every year, nearly 15 million babies die due to complications with premature births, according to World Health Organization, and “survivors can face a lifetime of disability including learning disabilities, visual, and hearing problems.”