Soil type linked to infant deaths

REGIONAL variations in infant deaths may be linked to water- logged soils which make breathing problems for mother and child more likely.

Scientists from the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University say infant mortality in 'wet' soil areas is almost a third higher than that in 'dry' soil areas.

The scientists analysed infant deaths in 504 wards in six counties in southern England which have differing soil wetness characteristics, classified as 'wet', 'intermediate' or 'dry' depending on whether waterlogging occurred in winter. There were a total of 2,540 infant deaths between 1981 and 1990 out of a total of 297,700 births.

A total of 18 'wet' areas had infant mortality rates in excess of 18 deaths per 1,000 births - more than twice the national average. Large areas of 'dry' soils had infant mortality rates of zero over the 10-year study period. The differences were statistically significant and were not due to variations in social class in the different areas.

Professor Edmund Penning- Rowsell, head of the research centre, said yesterday: 'We believe that we have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that infant mortality is higher in 'wet' areas . . . On average, per 1,000 live births, between two and three more babies in this area have died on the 'wet' soils than on the 'dry' soils during 1981-1990.'

The researchers say the mechanisms involved in causing the excess deaths are unclear, but suggest that a wetter and colder atmosphere associated with wet soils may make a baby and its mother more prone to colds or other respiratory problems which could result in death. They say that the wet soil 'phenomenon' must now be taken seriously, and that it may also play a role in cot deaths, more likely during winter.

Infant deaths in England and Wales have fallen dramatically, since the turn of the century, from 150 per 1,000 live births to less than 8 per 1,000 in 1991.

Infant Mortality and Waterlogged Soils: Significant Cause for Concern; Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, Queensway, Enfield, Middlesex EN3 4SF.