India's battle with air pollution: UNICEF report says Indian babies face high risk of brain damage

A UNICEF report has once again set alarm bells ringing about high levels of air pollution and its likely impact on brain development among infants.

The report, 'Danger in the air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children', released on Wednesday has revealed that nearly 17 million infants worldwide live in areas where outdoor air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits. The report noted that these babies are at a risk of suffering brain damage.

And the threat is much closer home. According to the report, nearly 16 million infants belong to Asia. Moreover, 75 percent of them live in the Indian subcontinent, which has three of the world's 10 most populations countries in the world — India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In fact, India topped the list of countries with babies at risk, followed by China, the most populated country in the world.

Delhi smog crisis

The UNICEF report comes at a time when the world's attention is on the continuing air crisis in India's National Capital Region.

Pollution had risen to alarmingly high levels in early November in the city, making it difficult for people to indulge in outdoor activities and forcing the closure of schools.

 Indias battle with air pollution: UNICEF report says Indian babies face high risk of brain damage

Representational image. AP

In the first two weeks of November, pollution had reached "severe" level on the Air Quality Index. Sample this: On 13 November, Punjabi Bagh recorded an air quality of 799, while Mandir Marg's air quality was at 592.

To put these numbers in context, AQI above 401 is considered "severe". On the other hand, a number between 301 and 400 is placed under the "very poor category" on the AQI.

The problem resurfaced in December, manifesting itself prominently on the cricket field when Sri Lankan cricketers wore pollution masks on the second and third days of the third Test match against India.

UNICEF report salient points

The UNICEF report noted that air pollution-related ailments has led to the deaths of over 920,000 children under the age of five every year.

The report said, "These effects are well established. But a growing body of scientific research points to a potential new risk that air pollution poses to children’s lives and futures: its impact on their developing brains. This should concern us all."

Focusing on the adverse effect on the development of brain among infants, the UNICEF report has found a direct relationship between exposure to air pollution and cognitive outcomes.

The report noted that affected infants faced problems of low verbal and nonverbal IQ and memory, reduced test scores, gradepoint averages among school children, along with neurological behavioral issues.

Nicholas Rees, the author of the report told AFP that toxic pollution is "impacting children's learning, their memories, linguistic and motor skills."

"Air pollutants inhaled during pregnancy can cross the placenta and affect the developing brain of a fetus, with potential lifelong effects," the UNICEF report pointed out.

The report noted the several mechanism through which air particles can affect children's brains. "Ultrafine pollution particles (particulate matter that is equal or less than 2.5 microns in diameter) pose an especially high risk because they can more easily enter the blood stream and travel through the body to the brain," the UNICEF report added.

According to the report, harmful particles from magnetite, a form of an ore, is a leading cause for pollution in urban areas. As its particles are small, they easily penetrate humans through olfactory nerves and the gut, the report said.

"Magnetite nano particles are highly toxic to the brain due to their magnetic charge and their ability to help create oxidative stress – which is often the cause of neurodegenerative diseases," the report noted. The report said that poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a kind of pollutants formed from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for loss of or damage to white matter in infant brains.

As PAHs are commonly found in areas of high automobile traffic, the UNICEF report believed that urbanisation without adequate protection and pollution reduction measures will put more children at risk.

UNICEF offers solutions

The UNICEF report urged citizens, especially in the developing world — South Asia and China — to be aware of the quality of air they breathe, and protect children from exposure to unhealthy air through protective masks or air filtration systems.

Rees told AFP said that masks help children "but very importantly they have to have good filters and they also have to fit children's faces well. A mask that does not fit the face well won't work."

Putting the onus of safety on the parents, the report urged them to provide their children with healthy and balanced diets to mitigate the threat from air pollution. But while parents can provide the first line of defence to vulnerable children, the UNICEF report also urged macro-level measures to tackle the menace of air pollution.

"Reducing air pollution means replacing fossil fuel combustion with cleaner, renewable sources of energy, including appropriate use of solar, wind and thermal sources," the report said in an apparent signal to municipal and political authorities to take action against the issue.

The report urged modern-day town planners to focus on creating new models of urbanisation, which will take care of the rising pollution levels.

"Rapidly urbanising areas have an opportunity to bypass some of the older planning models and take advantage of sustainable, cleaner innovations. They can also lay the right foundations from the onset," the report said.

Financial angle to pollution problem

One ramification of the pollution has been on the Indian economy. In November, the United Nations said that India had the highest share of welfare cost from deaths due to air pollution.

According to the UNEP report, India accounted for 58 percent to the total welfare cost (the total loss of income through labour) in South and South East Asia. In monetary terms, this translated to $220 billion out of the total $380 billion loss in these two regions.

The report, ‘Towards a pollution-free planet’, often focused on the larger picture, and urged co-operation between entities ranging from the municipal levels to the national government.

One of recommendations of the report was the following: "To achieve high level political commitment in key economic sectors, there is a need to go beyond the environmental ministries and to include other relevant ministries such as finance, agriculture, industry, urban, transport, energy and health. There is also a need to engage local government, civil society organizations, business leaders, industries, trade unions and citizens at large."

That the developing nations are most affected by air pollution has been the oft-repeated statement. This has also been backed by an October 2016 UNICEF report on pollution, which clearly showed a direct correlation between poverty rates and pollution-related mortality among children.

"Up to 88 percent of all deaths from illnesses associated with outdoor air pollution16 and over 99 percent of all deaths from illnesses associated with indoor air pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries," the report said while adding that Asia accounts for most of these deaths.

The report also revealed that pollution levels — indoor as well as outdoor — are higher in lower income areas across the developing countries.

"Eighty-one percent of rural households in India use biomass fuel, for instance, because it is relatively inexpensive and readily available," the report said while adding that its use had contributed to over 100,000 child deaths associated in 2012.

Read the full report here:

With inputs from AFP

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Updated Date: Dec 06, 2017 14:44:50 IST