One of the most effective ways to promote children’s health is to reduce air pollution, according to a meta-analysis of 45 studies exploring the link between air pollution and stunting.
The researchers from Vital Strategies found that air pollution significantly increases the risk of stunting in children, a risk that begins in the womb as mothers inhale fine particulate matter and continues throughout their childhood.
Stunting is when a child is unable to reach their full physical and cognitive potential because of external factors such as poor nutrition, and it’s determined by the age of 5.
Household air pollution, in particular, has been linked to harmful effects such as stunting, according to the report.
“The impact of air pollution on stunting is similar to air pollution on any other health outcome,” Vivian Pun, an epidemiologist in Vital Strategies' Environmental Health Division and one of the report’s authors, told Global Citizen.
“There’s really no threshold at which air pollution wouldn’t have an impact. It's particularly important because it has huge implications on childhood health in the short term, but there are also long-term implications into adolescence and adulthood, impacting not only height and physical development, but also cognitive and socioemotional development,” she said.
Only about 10% of people worldwide breathe safe air. The rest of the population breathes levels of fine particulate matter and toxic fumes that continually endanger their health. In fact, air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for death worldwide. Nearly 9 million people die prematurely from it each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, an October 2020 study suggested an estimated 15% of deaths were linked to air pollution.
The primary causes of outdoor air pollution include the burning of fossil fuels, power plants, factory emissions, vehicle exhaust, and construction sites. When it comes to the indoors, cook stoves fill rooms with toxic air pollution. Pun said that policymakers should focus on getting cleaner cookstoves to households as an immediate remedy.
Air pollution causes an endless array of health problems. It’s linked to heart disease and breathing complications, memory loss, and depression. The negative impact on children is particularly dangerous, according to Pun.
Worldwide, more than 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 are stunted, which is down from the nearly third of children who were stunted in 2000. Most efforts to address stunting focus on improving nutrition levels, but the new analysis by Vital Strategies shows that interventions must also include efforts to improve air quality.
“It’s really important for city governments and policymakers to prioritize air pollution,” Pun said. “They should identify the leading sources of air pollution and invest in clean fuels and reduction technology and implement clean air policy.”
Low- and middle-income countries bear the burden of both stunting and air pollution, both of which hold populations back, according to Vital Strategies.
Air quality should be improved for public health and quality of life reasons, but there’s also an economic argument. Because it can lead to stunting, air pollution can curb the emerging generation’s ability to go to school, develop a livelihood, and contribute to society.
“We have shown over and over again that ... policies to reduce pollution are really cost effective,” Pun said. “We’ve shown that the savings in health costs and the associated economic benefits far outweigh the initial investment costs to implement green technologies.”