One in five deaths linked to fossil fuels

10th February 2021

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Emma Devenport

Approximately one in five deaths are due to breathing air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, new scientific research suggests.

The study – based on data from 2018 – found that around 8.7 million people die every year as a result of fossil fuel emissions, which aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma, and can lead to lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.

This figure is far higher than previously thought, with regions containing the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution, such as Eastern North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia, found to have the highest rates of mortality.

The researchers from Harvard University and University College London (UCL) said that they hope the findings will encourage policymakers and others to switch to alternative energy sources.

“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health,” said UCL associate professor Eloise Marais.

“We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives.”

Burning fossil fuels produces fine particles laden with toxins that are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, known as PM2.5, and the health risks of inhaling these are well documented.

Until now, the Global Burden of Disease Study, which is the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, put the total number of deaths each year from all outdoor airborne particulate matter at 4.2 million people.

However, this relies on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of PM2.5 airborne particles, and cannot distinguish between particles from fossil fuel emissions and those from dust, wildfire smoke or other sources.

To overcome this challenge, the latest study used a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry with high spatial resolution, allowing the researchers to divide the globe into a grid with boxes as small as 50km x 60km and look at pollution levels in each box individually.

After developing a new risk assessment model that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes, they found that air pollution from fossil fuels accounts for 18% to 21.5% of global deaths.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” said Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

Image credit: iStock

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