Pregnant black women in South London have a higher risk of stillborn births as they are disproportionately more likely to breathe detrimental levels of air pollution, a study has found.
Pollution exposure also makes it more likely to give birth to premature or underweight babies and increases maternal depressive symptoms.
The daughter of Agnes Agyepong, a Lewisham mother-of-three and founder of Global Black Maternal Health, was hospitalised with community-acquired pneumonia at four years old.
“Nobody had listened to me”, Ms Agyepong said as countless trips to the doctors about her daughter’s coughing and runny nose only resulted in allergen tests.
“By the third time she went into hospital… her school had to call me as she was slumped over in the sports hall while all the children were playing. She had no energy.”
It was at this point that Ms Agyepong made the link with the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in Lewisham, which was attributed to air pollution by a coroner.
“Their lives are being put at risk just because they want to go to school…. I realised this story is now not just about Ella. It’s become a lot bigger than that now.”
Both Ella’s death and her own daughter’s story inspired Ms Agyepong to create the first study with Impact on Urban Health, to understand the attitudes and behaviour of black mothers in understanding air pollution.
Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham are among the boroughs which emit significantly more than the WHO guidance for levels of three key pollutants – NO2, PM2.5 and PM10 – per year.
Black people are more likely to live in economically deprived urban areas – labelled “sacrifice areas” – where low cost housing is located near incinerators but far from green spaces, according to The Runnymede Trust.
A black British baby is 80 per cent more likely to die, and an Asian British baby is 60 per cent more likely, due to increased levels of air pollution, according to Dr Karen Joash of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist.
Dr Joash said: “This isn’t down to socioeconomic status. The maternal mortality ratio is out of control in some urban areas, and this is down to geography and the air pollution these communities of black women breathe in daily.”
So-called “foetal programming” occurs during pregnancy as exposure to pollution causes persistent changes in the foetus through genetic profiles, Dr Joash said.
Children then have a higher risk of dying or having chronic health issues like cardiovascular disease or asthma.
Celeste Smith, who had her first child in January 2021, has lived near a traffic light junction in South London for five years and battles with air pollution daily.
Smith said: “It feels like there is no escape. We have tried selling… we are economically trapped in what we know to be an unhealthy environment. It is not how I wanted my little girl to begin life.”
According to London Air, 9,400 premature deaths across all ages in London are due to long-term exposure of air pollution.
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Source: Steffie Banatvala