Energy & Environment

Study: Fossil fuel air pollution linked to 1 in 5 deaths worldwide


Fine particulate matter air pollutants were tied to more than 8 million deaths in 2018, or about 20 percent of deaths worldwide, according to research Harvard University released Tuesday.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found regions with the highest level of air pollution produced by fossil fuels also have the highest mortality rates. These include Eastern North America, Southeast Asia and Europe, according to the study, published in Environmental Research.

Existing research has relied on satellite and surface data, which does not make a distinction between fine particulate matter from fuel emissions and naturally occurring sources such as wildfires or dust, according to the researchers.

However, the research published Tuesday incorporated a global 3D atmospheric chemistry model that was less reliant on averages and enabled more precise estimates of emission sources.

The results indicated a much higher level of air pollution-related mortality than earlier studies. The most recent Global Burden of Disease Study indicated a much lower number of 4.2 million deaths from outdoor airborne particulate matter, a figure that includes natural sources.

“The big takeaway message here is that we have far more to gain from our health than we just realized yesterday from getting off fossil fuels,” Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Hill in a phone interview.

“We already had a tremendous amount to gain … but we now see a much bigger return not just from people’s lives … but the pollutants that they studied cause children to have asthma, they cause women who are pregnant to have babies that are born too soon and with more birth defects,” added Bernstein, who was not an author on the study.

“This same air pollution we know causes pneumonia … we know that this air pollution is probably increasing the risk of people who are dying from coronavirus right now,” he added. “We can now see a much, much bigger gain to our health and welfare as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.”

Tags Air pollution fine particulate matter
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