Indoor air pollution can slow down brain development in infants: Study

Very small particulate matter can move from respiratory tract to brain

By Arya Rohini
Published: Tuesday 25 April 2023
The researchers observed poor air quality in households that used solid cooking materials such as cow dung cake. Representative photo: iStock.

India’s poor indoor air quality can impair cognitive development in children under two years — when brain growth is at its peak, according to a study.

The negative impact on children’s brain development could have long-term consequences for life, warned the research published in the journal eLife on April 25, 2023.

Since indoor air quality is linked to cooking fuels, efforts to reduce cooking emissions should be a key target for intervention, suggested researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

“This, in turn, could have a cascade of positive impacts because improved cognition can lead to improved economic productivity in the long term and reduce the burden on healthcare and mental health systems,” said John Spencer, lead researcher from UEA’s School of Psychology, in a press release.

Also read: Air pollution kills our children; and it isn’t even acknowledged

The team collected in-home air quality data from rural India, focusing on PM2.5 levels. This study is the first to establish an association between poor air quality and cognitive problems in infants under two.

“Prior work has shown that poor air quality is linked to cognitive deficits in children, as well as to emotional and behavioural problems, which can have a severe impact on families,” said Spencer.

The researchers worked with families from various socio-economic backgrounds in Shivgarh, a village in Uttar Pradesh. They observed poor air quality in households that used solid cooking materials such as cow dung cake. Infants from these houses had lower visual memory scores at six and nine months of age. They also had slower visual processing speeds from 6-21 months.

Very small particulate fragments in the air are a major concern as they can move from the respiratory tract into the brain, Spencer added.

More than 116,000 infants in India died within a month of birth in 2019 due to air pollution, outdoor and indoor, according to the State of Global Air 2020 report released October 21, 2020.

Another study published in Environmental Research in February 2021 found that air pollution and higher particulate matter 2.5 concentrations in ambient air originating from fossil fuel combustion caused 2.5 million premature deaths in India in 2018.

As children grow up in polluted environments, their developing organs and bodies are affected. Studies show that every third child in Delhi has impaired lungs. Other studies show that children growing up in polluted environments have smaller lungs. That makes one vulnerable to metabolic diseases.

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.