Dust pollution in Sub-Saharan Africa raised infant mortality: Study

A 25% spike in local annual mean particulate concentrations in West Africa caused an 18% increase in infant mortality

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Thursday 02 July 2020

Air pollution due to dust from the Sahara desert led to a significant increase in infant mortality rate in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent study.

The researchers from Stanford University, United States, found that a roughly 25 per cent increase in local annual mean particulate concentrations in West Africa caused an 18 per cent increase in infant mortality. The study was published in Nature Sustainability on June 29, 2020.

They analysed 15 years of household surveys from 30 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa covering nearly a million births. They combined this survey with satellite-detected changes in particulate levels driven by the Bodele Depression in Chad.

Bodele Depression located at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in north central Africa, is the lowest point in Chad. Dust storms from the Bodele Depression occur on average about 100 days per year. It is the largest source of dust emissions in the world. 

The researchers compared the birth and death data of children with satellite-detected changes in the air particle or particulate levels driven by the Bodele dust storms. Association between the two parameters was studied to see if poor air quality was associated with adverse health outcomes in children.

Emissions from Bodele contributed greatly to annual average particulate matter 2.5 concentrations across much of Africa, particularly in the north and west. 

The study highlighted that air pollution, even from natural sources, is extremely critical for child health. Children under five are particularly vulnerable to the tiny particles in air pollution that can have a range of negative health impacts, including lower birth weight and impaired growth in the first year of life.

The study concluded that air pollution from natural as well as artificial sources could be linked with a high infant mortality.

It attributed changing climate as the reason behind natural sources of air pollution. The concentration of dust particulate matter across Sub-Saharan Africa is highly dependent on the amount of rainfall in the Bodele Depression.

Due to climate change, the rainfall over the Bodele region is highly uncertain; researchers calculated that changes in rainfall in the region could lead to a 13 per cent reduction, or a 12 per cent increase, in infant mortality rates.

Dampening sand using groundwater in the Bodele region can stop the dust from rising and polluting the air. Solar-powered irrigation systems can help prevent 37,000 infant deaths per year in West Africa, according to researchers.

It can be more affordable than current health interventions, including a range of vaccines and water and sanitation projects in improving child health, they pointed out. 

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