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Air pollution may be responsible for nearly 6 million premature births globally, study finds

Experts say pollutants may also impact infants’ birth weight

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A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California San Francisco explored the risks pregnant women face when they’re exposed to air pollution. Their findings showed that exposure to both indoor and outdoor air pollution during pregnancy can have significant impacts on newborns, including low birth weight and premature birth. 

“The air pollution-attributable burden is enormous, yet with sufficient effort, it could be largely mitigated,” said researcher Rakesh Ghosh, Ph.D. 

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from previous studies that tracked both indoor and outdoor air pollution. They compared the results with 2019 data on pregnancies and related complications to determine how air pollution can negatively impact newborns. 

On a global scale, the study showed that all forms of air pollution were linked to nearly 3 million underweight newborns and 6 million premature newborns in 2019. In the U.S., air pollution was responsible for nearly 12,000 premature births.  

Two regions were associated with the highest levels of air pollution -- sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The researchers found that if pollution levels are stabilized in these two hotspots, it would significantly benefit pregnancy outcomes. 

All types of air pollution are problematic

While outdoor air pollution has been well-documented, the researchers explained that everything from stoves and fireplaces to cleaning products can contribute to higher indoor pollution levels. They note that all sources of air pollution can increase the risk for pregnancy complications. 

The researchers hope these findings highlight the importance of fighting against climate change and rising air pollution levels. 

“With this new, global and more rigorously generated evidence, air pollution should now be considered a major driver of infant morbidity and mortality, not just of chronic adult disease,” said Dr. Ghosh. “Our study suggests that taking measures to mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution levels will have significant health co-benefit for newborns.” 

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