Children in most polluted areas have 50% increased chance of death

Babies who grow up breathing polluted air face up to a 50% greater risk of dying before they turn one, study of eight million infants warns

  • Study of 8m births found 30 to 50% increase risk of death in children by age one
  • Three pollutants main cause – nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and sooty smog
  • Separate research linked traffic pollution to stunting lung function in youngsters

Air pollution may significantly increase the risk of babies dying in their first year of life, a major study has found.

Researchers tracked nearly eight million infants born in England and Wales between 2001 and 2012.

They found babies in the most polluted areas had a 30 to 50 per cent greater risk of dying by any cause by the age of one.    

Air pollution may increase the chance of death in babies by up to 50 per cent, a study of 8million children has found

Britain’s worst pollution hotspots was outside Earls Court tube station in London where the annual average of 129.5 micrograms per cubic metre of air. That’s triple that of the World Health Organization’s 40 mcg limit, according to research last month

Experts have long warned air pollution poses a risk to health, but the new research contains some of the starkest findings yet of the extent of that harm. 

Scientists say the microscopic particles emitted by cars and industry are breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream. 

From there it can trigger heart disease and lung cancer later in life, as well as lung infections such as pneumonia. 

The observational study did not offer a reason as to why the children were more likely to die early.

Researchers at the Cardiff University School of Medicine found three separate air pollutants all independently raised the risk of babies dying.

The main culprits were nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sooty smog pumped out by old diesel cars – known as particulate matter (PM10) – and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

NO2 and PM10 are mainly released from traffic, whereas SO2 is produced from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

The research team used the UK’s Office for National Statistics to analyse data from 7,984,366 live births and deaths in England and Wales over the 12 years.

They divided the country into approximately 35,000 small areas, each with a similar population size of 1,500 residents or 650 households.

Researchers then used average annual pollution data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The team, led by Dr Sarah Kotecha, calculated how much pollution each area was exposed to before linking it to death rates.


The UK’s air pollution was labelled a ‘national embarrassment’ in September.

Figures for 2017 showed 37 out of 43 air quality zones across the UK had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, the same number as the previous year.

Annual average levels of the pollutant from exhaust fumes fell in most places, figures from the Government and environmental law charity ClientEarth revealed.

But levels are still more than double the legal limit in Greater London and also well over the limit in areas including South Wales, West Midlands, Glasgow and Greater Manchester.

Brighton, Worthing and Littlehampton in West Sussex – an area declared as legal in the previous year – crept up to just below the threshold again, the statistics show.

The UK has been breaching EU pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from diesel vehicles, since the rules came into effect in 2010.

Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and is linked to health problems from childhood illnesses to heart disease and even dementia. 

There was a 20 to 40 per cent increased risk of death for babies aged up to one in the most polluted areas.

The doctors also found a 20 to 40 per cent increased risk of neonatal deaths – deaths that occur within 28 days of birth – in polluted areas.

And they recorded a 30 to 50 per cent spike in post-neonatal deaths, which occur between 28 days after birth and one year, in the same areas.

After adjusting for factors that could affect the results, such as deprivation, birthweight, maternal age and multiple births, the risks decreased slightly.

The chance of an infant dying was seven per cent greater in areas with high levels of NO2, four per cent for PM10 and 19 per cent for SO2.

They found that neonatal deaths increased by 21 per cent in areas plagued by SO2, but not significantly for NO2 and PM10.

And the risk of post-neonatal deaths increased by 11 per cent, 12 per cent and 15 per cent for areas high in NO2, PM10 and SO2, respectively. 

The average level of the pollutants in the mot polluted areas were was 34ug/m3 for NO2, 22ug/m3 for PM10 and 6ug/m3 for SO2. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a safe level of NO2 is below 40ug/m3, 20ug/m3 for PM10 and under 5ug/m3 of SO2.

Dr Kotecha said: ‘We found NO2, PM10 and SO2 are each linked in varying degrees to infant deaths from any cause, and to neonatal and post-neonatal deaths.

‘This is an important finding as the pollutants are produced and derived from different sources.

‘Our findings show that although progress has been made, the challenge remains to reduce air pollution in order to reduce the numbers of infant deaths.

‘In the meantime, by understanding how pollution affects babies, either directly or via the mother, we may be able to target appropriate therapies or other interventions, depending on the amount of exposure to the different types of pollutants.’

The findings are to be presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress on Sunday in Madrid. 

Currently 36,000 Britons a year die to air pollution, costing the country £20billion annually in healthcare. 

A further 29,000 people die with a range of illnesses linked to air pollution such as cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease. 

The UK is notoriously bad at controlling air pollution, with 37 cities persistently displaying illegal levels and the Government repeatedly being hauled into court over the past few years.

Diesel cars have been promoted since the 1970s as an environmentally-friendly choice because they emit less carbon dioxide.

But in recent years scientists have realised that diesel also produces more of the tiny particles and nitrogen oxides that are damaging to our health.


Air pollution reduces the lung function of children, research has also suggested.

In the largest study of its kind, University of Leicester experts calculated the PM10 exposure of nearly 14,000 children between 1990 and 2008.

The team, who will present their findings at the same conference, looked at how it affected each trimester of pregnancy, as well as during infancy and childhood.

Results showed children who had been exposed to high levels of PM10 – from road traffic – had reduced lung function by the age of eight.

Professor Anna Hansell, study co-author, said: ‘We found exposure to road traffic PM10 in very early life showed harmful associations with lung function in eight-year-olds.

‘Associations were stronger among boys, children whose mother had a lower education level or smoked during pregnancy.

‘Our findings suggest air pollution in pregnancy and early life has important impacts on lung function in early childhood.’

She added: ‘[The reduced function] may affect children’s development and potentially also their long-term health trajectory.’

However, the researchers did not see similar links between traffic pollution and lung function in children at the age of 15 years.

It is believed this is because of a crackdown on pollution over the study peiod. 

Professor Hansell said: ‘We think this may be because air pollution levels, particularly diesel emissions, were reducing over the time that the lung function was increasing in these analyses.

‘However, it is also possible that the effect of air pollution is small and that lung growth is able to outpace the adverse effects by teenage years.’

She said it was unclear how traffic pollution could affect childhood lung function, particularly during pregnancy.

One mechanism could be that particles cross the placenta and disturb the development of the growing foetus’s lungs.

Jorgen Vestbo, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, said the findings highlight the dangers of being exposed to filthy air from the start of life.

Professor Vestbo, who is also chair of the European Respiratory Society’s Advocacy Council, added: ‘Lots of previous research has shown that in the long term, outdoor air pollution can reduce life expectancy, affect lung development, increase asthma incidence and lead to other chronic respiratory diseases.

‘Breathing is the most basic human function required to sustain life. We cannot give up the fight for the right to breathe clean air, and we must continue to apply pressure on policymakers to ensure that maximum pollutant levels indicated by the World Health Organization are not breached across our cities and towns in order to protect the health of young babies, as well as the wider population.’

Researchers looked at the youngsters during pregnancy and at the ages of zero to six months, seven to 12 months and then annually to the age of 15 years.

They measured the volume of air that children could force out in one second and the maximum amount of air they could exhale after taking the deepest possible breath.

Children took the tests at the age of eight and 15 years and scientists compared their results to their exposure to PM10.

Every one microgram per cubic metre of air (mcg/m3) of PM10 during the first trimester of pregnancy was linked to a 0.8 per cent reduction in lung function.

The researchers found a similar trend during the second and third trimesters, over the whole pregnancy, and up to the age of eight.


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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