NEW DELHI – As New Delhi and other major cities hit new peaks of toxic smog, the United Nations sounded the alarm Wednesday over the damage that pollution is doing to babies’ developing brains.
The U.N.’s children’s agency, UNICEF, said Asia accounts for more than 16 million of the world’s 17 million infants under 1 year old living in areas with severe pollution, which is classified as at least six times higher than the threshold considered unsafe.
India topped the list of countries with babies at risk, followed by China, UNICEF said in a report.
Satellite imagery that is used to assess pollution levels around the world found that South Asian countries accounted for 12.2 million of the total number of affected children, and that there is a growing problem in African cities.
Air pollution has already been linked to asthma, bronchitis and other long-term respiratory diseases.
“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,” UNICEF said.
The report highlighted links found between pollution and brain functions “including verbal and nonverbal IQ and memory, reduced test scores, grade point averages among school children, as well as other neurological behavioral problems.”
“As more and more of the world urbanises, and without adequate protection and pollution reduction measures, more children will be at risk in the years to come.”
The ultra-fine particles in city pollution can damage the blood-brain barrier — a delicate membrane that protects the brain from toxic substances.
Damage to the membrane has been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in the elderly.
UNICEF also highlighted the growing risk from minute particles of the iron ore magnetite, which is increasingly found in urban pollution.
The nanoparticles, which easily get into the bloodstream, are highly dangerous to the brain because of their magnetic charge and have also been linked to degenerative diseases.
The author of the “Danger in the Air” report, Nicholas Rees, said that toxic pollution is “impacting children’s learning, their memories, linguistic and motor skills.”
Delhi closed schools in early November after doctors declared a public health emergency, but quickly reopened them — provoking anger from parents who accused authorities of “playing with children’s health.”
The crisis saw large swaths of north India and parts of neighboring Pakistan blanketed in acrid air — an annual phenomenon as cooler air traps particles near the ground, cause pollution levels to spike.
In China, where air pollution has cut life expectancy in the industrial north by three years, the government has imposed production curbs on industry to counter a smog crisis that rivals India’s — but progress has been patchy.
UNICEF urged more efforts to cut pollution, and also to reduce children’s exposure to the poisonous smog that has frequently reached hazardous levels in Indian cities in recent weeks.
It called for a greater use of masks, air filtration systems and for children to avoid traveling when pollution levels are at their highest.
Rees said masks help “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.”