New Delhi (AFP)

In this period of pollution in New Delhi, Rachel Gokavi spends most of her days shuttered at home to protect the child that she carries toxic air of the Indian capital, particularly harmful for fetuses and newborns .

"I still keep the balcony door closed and do not go out too much.I'm afraid the baby has breathing problems after birth," told AFP the 26-year-old mother.

At a recent prenatal meeting in the mega-city of twenty million people, she and other pregnant women share their worries and anger at the notorious air pollution of northern India.

"Do not go out for a walk in the morning, try to go there in the afternoon when the sun is high" and the relatively less pollution, just advise the host, helpless as hundreds of millions of Indians face to this threat to public health.

While the dreadful winter pollution is just beginning in Delhi and no respite is in sight, even the doctors are clueless. Just can they recommend that pregnant women wear protective masks and use expensive air purifiers at home - for those who can afford it.

Every year at the beginning of winter, a combination of natural factors (cold, weak winds, etc.) and human factors (agricultural burns, industrial and automobile emissions, fires to heat up, etc.) makes the north air of India unbreathable.

However, according to scientific research, air pollution can affect children even before they come into the world.

According to a study conducted in Beijing, another major Asian city facing the problem of toxic air, high levels of pollution increase the risk of so-called "silent", that is to say without symptoms, miscarriages during first trimester of gestation.

Another study, dating from 2017, suggests that microparticles in "smog" can enter the placenta and disrupt the development of the unborn baby.

- "Emergency situation" -

At Sitaram Bhartia Hospital in Delhi, tiny babies, sometimes weighing just a kilo, breathe oxygen through tubes while machines follow their vital signs.

Rinku Sengupta, an obstetrician in this busy neonatal unit, finds that low birthweight and preterm birth rates increase with pollution levels.

"We are very concerned because we know that pollutants can not only affect the lungs of mothers but can even reach the placenta and affect placental function," she told AFP.

"The direct cause and effect relationship is hard to prove, but there is enough evidence now to say that there is a direct connection and we have to sit down and think about what we can do about it," she adds, alarmed by an "emergency".

Children breathe more than adults because of the small size of their lungs. Pollution can cause respiratory problems and even affect their cognitive development.

An Indian NGO estimated in a report published in June that air pollution caused the deaths of 100,000 children under the age of five every year in the country of 1.3 billion people.

Arti Bhatia, 35, is now the proud mother of a six-month-old dynamic girl, Ayesha. But her path to motherhood has been marked by the pain of many miscarriages, for which she wonders if the pollution has not played a role.

"The first time I lost (a baby), I thought it was bad luck, it was not fate or something, but afterwards I started to ask: is it because of the air we breathe? "

© 2019 AFP