Fossil Fuel Pollution Kills Nearly 9 Million Each Year

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

New research suggests that the effects of pollution from burning coal and gasoline may be even more deadly than many other health threats.  A new study has found that 8.7 million people around the world die each year from breathing polluted air caused by fossil fuels. This number is double the previous estimate of fine-particle pollution mortality, and three times the combined number of deaths from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in 2018. These particles — tiny, poisonous molecules called PM2.5— are small enough to creep into the lungs, aggravating asthma and even causing lung cancer, coronary heart disease, strokes, and early death. The effects of fossil fuel pollution are even more acute in the pandemic, due to a link between pollution and COVID-19 deaths.

Why this Matters: This study — published in Environmental Research, as a collaboration between researchers from Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London— suggests that fossil fuel pollution accounted for 18% of total deaths in 2018. Most of the deaths — 62% — are in China (3.9 million) and India (2.5 million). Eloise Marais, a co-author of the study working for the University of Leicester, said in a statement: “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.”

How the Study Worked:

Researchers took a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry to see local concentrations of PM2.5. This 3D model allowed the scientists to split the globe into a grid with rectangles as small as 31 miles by 37 miles, which helped them see pollution levels in much more granular detail. Moreover, they could distinguish between different sources of pollution, and focus the impact of pollution on places where people live. 

They took real emissions and meteorology data, primarily from 2012, and then updated the data as levels of fossil fuels changed up to 2018, particularly in China, where fossil fuel pollution fell by 44% — a decision which saved 2.4 million lives worldwide, according to the study’s authors. 

Ultimately, the study found that China, India, parts of the US east coast, Europe, and Southeast Asia had the most deadly pollution. As many as 13.1% deaths in the US, 16.8% in Europe, and 30.7% deaths in Eastern Asia were the result of fossil fuel pollution. 

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