Air pollution: 6 million premature births every year

A new study links air pollution to nearly 6 million premature births and nearly 3 million underweight children in one year. The study indicates that indoor air pollution, mainly from cooking ovens, is the cause of two-thirds of these perinatal problems. Although the authors found that the situation was worse in low- and middle-income countries, air pollution is a global health problem.

This study, published in the scientific journal PLOS, finds that air pollution is associated with almost 6 million premature births and almost 3 million underweight babies in 2019. According to the authors, it is also the first study to analyze perinatal outcomes due to the effects of outdoor and indoor air pollution, which comes primarily from cooking ovens.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 15 million premature babies are born every year. Premature birth complications are the leading cause of death in children under 5 years old. Low birth weight is also associated with an increased risk of disease in adulthood.

The current study examines the links between air pollution and several important indicators of perinatal health, including preterm birth, gestational age at birth, birth weight, and low birth weight. Previous research has already concluded that air containing less than 2.5 micrometers of particles is associated with adverse perinatal outcomes.

The dangers of indoor air pollution

According to the WHO, 99% of the world’s population breathe air that does not meet the organization’s safety standards, with people living in low- and middle-income countries being the most at risk. The WHO estimates that outdoor air pollution is responsible for 4.2 million deaths each year. The WHO also calculates that 3.8 million premature deaths each year are due to indoor air pollution, such as smoke from cooking fires. Again, this phenomenon occurs mainly in low- and middle-income countries.

The burning of coal, manure and wood in inefficient stoves and open hearths is the main source of health-damaging pollutants, such as airborne particles. Single wick kerosene lamps also contribute to the problem. According to the new study, indoor air pollution is most prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, two regions with the highest rates of preterm births in the world.

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Africa, in general, has a much lower number of air quality monitoring stations than any other continent, according to the 2020 World Air Quality Report. It is very likely that the health effects are underestimated rather than overestimated. This is a stark example of global health inequalities.

The authors of the study say that a significant reduction in air pollution in these two regions could reduce the incidence of premature births and low birth weight by 78%.

Perinatal problems related to air pollution are also common in more developed regions. The study mentions that it contributed to almost 12,000 premature births in the United States in 2019.

What can we do ?

First of all, sensitize pregnant women to exposure to air pollution and its unhealthy impact on the baby, just like alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy. This should be a key message in prenatal care, especially in places where household air pollution is prevalent.

Mothers who have no choice but to spend some time in a closed and polluted environment should be encouraged to wear N95 or N99 masks. Wherever possible, replace solid fuels with cleaner fuels.


Ambient and household PM2.5 pollution and adverse perinatal outcomes: A meta-regression and analysis of attributable global burden for 204 countries and territories

WHO: Air pollution



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