Study suggests possible link between cot death and air pollution

Scientists have found a possible link between cot death and exposure to certain pollutants.

Just under 300 babies die every year in the UK from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – the unexpected and unexplained death of an apparently healthy baby.

A study led by the University of Birmingham looked at the effects of short-term variations in air pollution, and found evidence suggesting an association between SIDS and exposure to larger particulate matter (airborne pollutants) called PM10, as well as nitrous dioxide (NO2).

The study involved more than 200 SIDS cases in the West Midlands between 1996 and 2006, with researchers looking at levels of air pollution the day before a SIDS death and comparing them to levels on a previous reference day.

The research found an increased risk for SIDS two days after exposure to NO2, while exposure to PM10 was shown to have an effect for up to five days after exposure.

Other pollutants were not found to be associated with SIDS.

Researchers pointed parents to advice that suggests they can reduce the effects of exposure to pollution on their child by staying indoors on days with higher levels of pollution.

Cleaning systems for air in the home such as air purifiers can also be used, although they said these can be expensive.

Lead author Dr Ian Litchfield, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Applied Health Research, said: “Certain groups of the population are more vulnerable to ambient air pollution than others and children figure predominantly among them due to the fragility of their immune system and the ratio of their lung capacity to their size.

“Concern around the effects of air pollution continues to mount, particularly within developing economies where it contributes to 3.3 million premature deaths worldwide per year, a figure estimated to double by 2050 if the issue remains unattended.

“However, government policies appear slow to react, for example, in the UK pledges to cease sales of diesel and petrol cars do not come into effect until 2040.

“Our study has highlighted that more research needs to be carried out to better understand the effects of air pollution on child health, while government policy needs to bring about change with increasing urgency.”

Francine Bates, chief executive of The Lullaby Trust which funded the research, said: “The findings of the study give some cause for concern and parents should be aware that exposure of their child to air pollution carries health implications, including a possible increase in the risk of SIDS.

“However, further research is needed to understand more about the link between air pollution and SIDS and what can be done to reduce exposure of young children to pollution.

“For now we would advise parents to follow safer sleep guidelines which are known to reduce the risk of SIDS such as sleeping their baby on their back on a firm, flat surface, in a clear cot or moses basket and not exposing them to secondhand cigarette smoke.”

The research is published in BMJ Open and was carried out in collaboration with the University of Oulu in Finland and the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia in Africa.

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