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Fossil fuel pollution is killing us: another reason to be ambitious

Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, according to new research from Harvard University

By Ground report
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Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, according to new research from Harvard University in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London.

The research finds that air pollution from burning fossil fuels accounted for around 10 million premature deaths in 2012 and more than 8 million people died in 2018 and in 2020, 1.2 million deaths were directly related to the burning of fossil fuels, with China and India seeing the largest number of lives interrupted.

Fossil fuels only

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, doubled previous estimates in an analysis with China and India alone accounting for half of this balance. The toxic cocktail of fine particles generated by the burning of oil, gas and especially coal is responsible for at least a quarter of deaths in half a dozen countries, all in Asia.

These estimates are based on satellite data and surface surveys intended to determine PM2.5 fine particulate concentrations. 

For the research, the scientists used a high-resolution mathematical model to study global concentrations of PM2.5 specifically from the burning of fossil fuels.

They also used a new health risk assessment model to estimate the total number of premature deaths that can be attributed to PM2.5 pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Most affected

Obviously, they are the inhabitants of those places where there is greater air pollution from fossil fuels. According to the study, the most affected regions are eastern North America, Europe and Southeast Asia. These regions are the ones with the highest mortality rates.

China and India are the countries on the podium of the sad ranking. The fact to keep in mind: if China had not implemented its policies against air pollution in recent years, the number would have been higher.

The 10 countries with the highest proportions of deaths attributable to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in Latin America are Mexico (10.7%), Chile (10.3%), Guatemala (9.2 ), El Salvador (9.1%), and Venezuela (8.6%), Peru (8.5%), Dominican Republic (8.1%), Colombia (8.1%), Ecuador (7.2 %) and Argentina (6.6%).

premature deaths

The next step was to determine the impact of air pollution concentrations on human health.

"For that, we use a statistical model that relates air pollution concentrations to the number of deaths, so if you live in a region with very high concentrations of pollution, you will be more susceptible to premature mortality," Eloise Marais, professor of physical geography at University College London said.

"The model was very recently updated with new epidemiological studies by the Harvard School of Public Health. These studies were carried out, for example, in regions with high concentrations of contamination such as China, and others with much lower concentrations in Europe or the United States.

With this new information, we found that the negative impact of air pollution from burning fossil fuels is much worse than previously known."

Reduced life expectancy 

We often talk about the danger of burning fossil fuels in the context of CO2 emissions and climate change. Potential health impacts are overlooked," said one of the co-authors, Joel Schwartz, of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

According to previous research, air pollution shortens life expectancy by more than two years, on average.

Once again, Asia is particularly affected, with a reduced life expectancy of more than four years, compared to eight months in Europe. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution (which includes pollution from cooking or heating homes) kills 7 million people a year, of which 4.2 million are related to outdoor pollution.

Compared with other causes of premature death, air pollution, which causes heart or lung disease, kills 19 times more people each year than malaria, 9 times more than AIDS, or 3 times more than alcohol.

In addition to causing air pollution, fossil fuels also harm human health by fueling the climate crisis. A recent report found that the health of millions of people is already being affected by the impacts of the climate crisis, including worsening extreme weather events and changes in disease risk.

"The deadly health impacts of climate change and air pollution, two of the most pressing global health problems of our time, must be stopped," said Dr. Ronald Law, a University of Washington affiliate professor and chief of Health Emergency Preparedness in the Philippines.

"Bold actions to switch to clean energy sources are imperative if we are to better protect the health of our planet, society and people, now and in the future." 


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