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.

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.
Highlights of the report:

Nearly 17 million infants worldwide live in areas where outdoor air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits. These babies are at a risk of suffering brain damage. Air pollution-related ailments have led to the deaths of over 920,000 children under the age of five every year.

The threat is much higher in Asia. Nearly 16 million infants belong to Asia. Moreover, 75% 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.
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. Affected infants faced problems of low verbal and nonverbal IQ and memory, reduced test scores, grade point averages among school children, along with neurological behavioural issues.

As per the report, 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 bloodstream and travel through the body to the brain.

The report also notes that harmful particles from magnetite, a form of an ore, is a leading cause of pollution in urban areas. As its particles are small, they easily penetrate humans through olfactory nerves and the gut. Magnetite nanoparticles 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 said that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a kind of pollutants formed from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for the loss of or damage to white matter in infant’s 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.

Solutions offered by the UNICEF:

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

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 of 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.

In an apparent signal to municipal and political authorities to take action against the issue, the report also said that 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 also 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.

 

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