Mothers-to-be fear for their unborn in smog-choked Delhi

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NEW DELHI, Nov 8, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Heavily pregnant Rachel Gokavi spends
most days shut away in her New Delhi home, desperate to shield her unborn
child from the toxic air blamed for soaring miscarriage rates and infant
deaths.

At a recent pre-natal class in the Indian capital, Gokavi and other
expectant mothers shared their feelings of helplessness and anger at having
to breathe poisonous air day in and out.

“I always keep the balcony door closed and don’t go out as much. I fear
there could be breathing issues when the baby is born,” Gokavi, 26, told AFP.

Like Gokavi, other anxious mothers-to-be listened to tips and tricks on
coping with the smog that is so bad that Delhi’s chief minister recently
likened the city to a “gas chamber”.

“Don’t go out for morning walks. Try and go in the afternoon when the sun
is out,” was all the instructor could advise the women, who listened intently
with furrowed brows.

With no respite from the pollution in sight, doctors too have little choice
but just to recommend face masks and expensive air purifiers at home — if
they can afford them, which many cannot.

India is home to 14 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities, according to
the World Health Organization.

Every winter smoke from farmers’ fires combine with industrial and vehicle
emissions to turn towns and cities across northern India into smog-blanketed
hellholes.

This toxic cocktail cuts short the lives of one million people in India
every year, according to government research published in June.

The same report blamed air pollution for killing more than 100,000 under-
fives every year.

Doctors say kids breathe the noxious air twice as fast as adults because of
their smaller lungs, causing respiratory problems and even impairing brain
development.

There is evidence to suggest that adolescents exposed to higher levels of
air pollution are more likely to experience mental health problems, UNICEF
said this week.

– As bad as smoking –

But even before they are born, smog is as bad as smoking when it comes to
miscarriages, another study released in the journal Nature Sustainability
last month indicated.

The research done in Beijing — another capital that has for years battled
filthy air — linked high levels of pollution and an increased risk of
“silent miscarriage” in the first trimester.

This happens when a foetus hasn’t formed or has died but the placenta and
embryonic tissue remain.

Another study, in 2017, suggested that tiny particles can enter the foetal
side of the placenta and disrupt the development of the unborn baby.

– Miscarriages, premature babies –

At Delhi’s Sitaram Bhartia hospital, excruciatingly tiny babies weighing as
little as a kilogramme (2.2 pounds) breathe oxygen through plastic tubes as
machines monitor their vital signs.

Rinku Sengupta, an obstetrician at the busy neonatal unit, says that rates
of such underweight babies as well as premature births are rising in cities
with high levels of pollution.

“We are very worried because we know that the pollutants cannot only affect
the lungs of mothers but these can even reach the placenta and affect the
placental function,” she told AFP.

“It is difficult to prove a direct cause-effect relationship. But there is
enough evidence now to say that there is a direct link and we need to sit up
and think what we can do about it,” she said.

“It is an emergency situation.”

Arti Bhatia, 35, is now the proud mother of a lively six-month-old
daughter, Ayesha.

But her journey to motherhood was filled with the pain of miscarriages, and
she wonders whether pollution was to blame.

“I had my baby after three years of trying and in those three years I lost
a few pregnancies,” Bhatia told AFP.

“The first time I lost (a pregnancy) I thought maybe it was bad luck, maybe
it was not meant to be or something. But subsequently it was like ‘is it
because of the air we breathe’?”

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