Study: Fossil fuel pollution behind almost 1 in 5 total deaths worldwide

Emissions from a coal-powered plant and industrial facility are seen in Datong, Shanxi Province, China, on December 12, 2018. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI

Feb. 9 (UPI) — Air pollution created by fossil fuels was responsible for almost 9 million deaths in 2018 — nearly twice as many as previously thought, according to a new study from Harvard University and other institutions published Tuesday.

The research from Harvard scientists and those at Britain’s University of Birmingham, University of Leicester and University College London shows that more than 8.7 million deaths in 2018 were attributed to the pollution.

The study found that regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution, southeast Asia (30%), Europe (17%) and eastern North America (13%), had the highest mortality rates.

According to the study, almost one out of every five deaths (18%) that occurred in 2018 were attributable to the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.

Researchers called the pollution a “key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease.”

The study shows more than twice as many fossil-fuel related deaths than were previously reported in The Lancet in 2019, which then put the death toll at 4.2 million.

“We were initially very hesitant when we obtained the results because they are astounding, but we are discovering more and more about the impact of this pollution,” study co-author Eloise Marais said in a report by The Guardian Tuesday.

“It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”

Researchers used new mapping methods to correlate the presence of tiny particulate matter emitted from power plants, vehicles and other fossil fuel sources. The particles become lodged in the lungs and have been linked to respiratory disease and other ailments, including more severe COVID-19.

Other studies have shown that eliminating fossil fuels would add a year to human life expectancy and reduce health-related economic costs by about $3 trillion per year.

“We don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer,” said Dr. Neelu Tummala, a physician at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“The air we breathe impacts everyone’s health but particularly children, older individuals, those on low incomes and people of color. Usually people in urban areas have the worst impacts.”

Researchers used a global 3-D model to map known emission sources and compare mortality rates. The study used data from 2012, and compared it with data in 2018, when China had said it would cut fossil fuel emissions in half.

The study said Beijing’s move to reduce emissions saved more than 2 million lives worldwide, mostly in mainland China.

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

“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.

The study was also published in the journal Environmental Research.


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