Carbon-based air pollution linked with high odds of infant mortality in low- and middle-income countries

In low- and middle-income countries, infants exposed to carbon-based fine particulate air pollution—the kind caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels—had 50% higher odds of dying during infancy than babies who were not exposed, according to a new study.

The study was published online May 10, 2019 in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The researchers found that infants’ exposure to all types of ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5), including dust and sea-salt, was only weakly associated with higher odds of neonatal mortality. But the association was much stronger when researchers only considered exposure to carbon-based PM2.5, mainly caused by humans. The association was strong even at low levels of exposure.

Researchers analyzed data on more than half a million births in 43 low- and middle-income countries, drawing information from 69 demographic and health surveys conducted between 1998 and 2014. They calculated early-life exposure to ambient PM2.5 —both overall PM2.5 and PM2.5 separated by type—using satellite data matched to the child’s place of residence.

David Canning, Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Science and Professor of Economics and International Health in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was senior author of the paper. Mahesh Karra, SD ’17, was also a co-author.