Delhi’s pollution is putting 300,000 babies at risk of brain damage every year

Dangerous air.
Dangerous air.
Image: Reuters/Saumya Khandelwal
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Air pollution affects millions, and the most vulnerable are our weakest: children and old people. It’s easy to see why the old suffer as their bodies are unable to repair as quickly as those of the young. But why are children among the most vulnerable?

The United Nation’s Children’s Fund (Unicef) explains:

Young children’s immune systems are still developing, and their lungs are still growing. With every breath, children take in more air per unit of body weight than adults. By extension, when air is toxic, they take in more toxic air per unit of body weight than adults. Moreover, the impacts have ripple effects into other critical aspects of children’s lives. For example, when children get sick, they might miss school, further limiting their learning and development potential.

Now, a new Unicef study (pdf) shows that even if pollution doesn’t kill, children under the age of one are likely to suffer brain damage. It means, in India’s smog-choked capital of New Delhi, more than 300,000 children born each year are at risk.

Air pollution can affect brain development in many ways. Particulate matter pollution, created by the inefficient burning of fossil fuels in cars and power plants, easily enters our blood stream via our lungs. Worse still, some of it is so small it can even cross the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain. There these particles can slow down the development of a young brain and are even known to cause neurodegenerative diseases in adults like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Other types of pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, have been shown to affect the growth of white matter in the brain. White matter is crucial for the brain’s neurons to communicate, and its loss can lead to learning difficulties.

And it’s not just Delhi’s babies who are breathing in toxic air. Over 17 million infants around the world, including 12 million in Asia, live in regions affected by severe air pollution.