Pollutants inhaled by pregnant women may pass through the placenta and disturb the development of the brain of the foetus.
Nearly 17 million babies live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than global limits, causing them to breathe toxic air and potentially risking their brain development, according to a new paper released on Tuesday by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
One study reports a four-point drop in IQ by the age of 5 among a sample of children exposed in utero to toxic air pollution, it said. The variety of types of pollutants that are in the air across different environments make it hard to determine the full impact of air pollution. Another 4.3 million babies in the East Asia and Pacific region live in areas with pollution levels at least six times higher than the worldwide recommendation.
The links of pollution with asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases in the long course are known for a long time.
A Unicef report states that toxic air severely affects children's brain development and may cause a permanent damage to their brains.
The report urges parents to reduce children's exposure to harmful chemicals, including from tobacco products and cooking stoves.
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Danger in the Air advises reducing children's exposure to pollutants by traveling during lower air pollution times of the day; providing appropriately fitting air filtration masks, in extreme cases; and creating smart urban planning so that major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals.
Air pollution potentially affects children's brains through several mechanisms.
The pollution " will impact the learning of the children, their memories, their language skills and motor", said to AFP Nicholas Rees, author of the report.
UNICEF researchers add that the first 1,000 days of a child's life are critical to their long-term development and must be protected from hazards that threaten their physical and mental health.
"A lot of focus goes on making sure children have good quality education - but also important is the development of the brain itself", Rees added. The East Asia and Pacific region is home to some 4.3 million babies living in areas that exceed six times the limit.
The European Environment Agency has found that polluted air kills half a million EU residents per year.