Air pollution: Over 8 million Indian babies face high risk of brain damage, says UNICEF report

A new global UNICEF report said on Wednesday that almost 17 million babies under the age of one live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits – of which 12 million infants live in South Asia, including India.

According to, Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India, as many as 10 Indian cities have figured in the 20 most polluted cities across the world leaving over eight million children in the country exposed to toxic air and potentially putting them at high risk of brain damage.

The paper titled ‘Danger in the Air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children’ noted that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development, with lifelong implications and setbacks.

“It is a global problem. Field burning happens in South Asia and Africa. Coal power plants are all over the world. As per the reports we have on climate change, an action might be taken in a country but the reaction is (felt) in another country,” Haque said.

There is a need for action by all countries so children are born and grow up in an environment that is healthy, she said.

Creating awareness among all stakeholders to move toward green practices will help reducing pollution levels, Haque told IANS in an interview on Wednesday, against the backdrop of the release of a new global UNICEF paper.

The UNICEF report comes at a time when the Indian capital Delhi has attracted international attention over its failure to curb the ever-looming air pollution.

On Wednesday, the air quality in Delhi-NCR improved markedly from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’ towards the evening, with the wind speed catching up. At 8 p.m., the PM2.5 (or particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers) in Delhi was 131 units and in Delhi-NCR it was 129 units – five times the safe limit.

Haque said there was hope, citing the global momentum on climate change, but added the bigger hope comes from children themselves.

“In India, we have seen children are raising their voices, educating others. As future citizens of the country, they are raising the issues they are concerned about. That is very important,” she said.

She added even if a pregnant woman inhales toxic air, it might have an impact on her baby.

She said government regulations would work but the more important aspect was involvement of all stakeholders such as agriculture groups and industries.

“There can be regulation but beyond that, you need a change in your behaviour. This is where industries have a role to play. Cooperative groups, agriculture bodies can get farmers agreed on a code of conduct (field burning),” she said.

Haque said the country could prompt hybrid, electric-operated vehicles especially public transport.

However, she concluded that it needs action from not just government but by all stakeholders in society.