Oct. 21 (UPI) -- New research Wednesday says air pollution is the leading cause of death for newborns in their first month of life, and was responsible for killing nearly a half-million babies last year.
The "State of Global Air 2020" report was compiled and published by the Health Effect Institute.
The study said 476,000 newborn babies died last year due to pollution, most of whom lived in underdeveloped nations.
"Air pollution is linked with an increased risk of low birth weight and preterm birth," it states. "Babies born too small or too early are more susceptible to health problems such as lower-respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, brain damage and inflammation, blood disorders, and jaundice."
The analysis said about two-thirds of deaths last year resulted from indoor pollution, like burning charcoal, wood and animal dung for cooking -- and more than 90% of the global population experienced fine particle air pollution that exceeded safety guidelines from the World Health Organization.
"In 2019, air pollution moved up from the fifth to the fourth leading risk factor for death globally, continuing to exceed the impacts of other widely recognized risk factors for chronic diseases like obesity, high cholesterol, and malnutrition," the report states.
The assessment said the only causes of early death that ranked higher than pollution were high blood pressure, tobacco use and poor diet.
"Over the last several decades, scientists have continued to build an extensive body of evidence on the risks that breathing poor-quality air poses to human health and our environment, perhaps the most extensive evidence that exists for any environmental risk factor," the study notes.
"Despite all that is known about the effects of air pollution on health, the findings in 2019 show that little or no progress has been made in many parts of the world."
Travel restrictions imposed after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year, the researchers said, led to a brief improvement of global air quality.
"As restrictions have lifted, emissions have risen -- quickly erasing any gains in air quality," it says. "Since air pollution's most substantial health burdens arise from chronic, long-term exposure, COVID-19 has offered only a temporary respite from air pollution."
The report says residents in India face the most air pollution, followed by populations in Nepal, Niger, Qatar and Nigeria. It said Asia, Africa and the Middle East have been affected most by air pollution.