Fossil fuel pollution killed 8.7 million people prematurely in 2018—more than 18% of the total global death toll that year, and more than twice the impact calculated in recent research—according to a new study published this week in the journal Environmental Research.
The total death count exceeded the combined impact of tobacco smoking and malaria, making fossil pollution a “key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease,” states the study by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London.
“Countries with the most prodigious consumption of fossil fuels to power factories, homes, and vehicles are suffering the highest death tolls,” The Guardian reports, with fossil use accounting for nearly one-third of deaths in eastern Asia, including China, and one in 10 in the United States and Europe.
“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,” said study co-author and University College London geographer Eloise Marais. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”
A previous study calculated 8.8 million air pollution deaths based on data for the year 2015. The latest Global Burden of Disease Study, published in 2019 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, estimated 4.2 million deaths from dust and smoke from wildfires and agricultural burns, The Guardian says.
The new study “deploys a more detailed analysis of the impact of sooty airborne particles thrown out by power plants, cars, trucks, and other sources. This particulate matter is known as PM2.5, as the particles are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter—or about 30 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair. These tiny specks of pollution, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems.”
“We don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer,” Neelu Tummala, an ear, nose and throat specialist at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told The Guardian. “The air we breathe impacts everyone’s health but particularly children, older individuals, those on low incomes, and people of colour. Usually people in urban areas have the worst impacts.”
The latest research used a global, three-dimensional model of atmospheric chemistry that divides the Earth into 50 x 60 kilometre boxes, allowing researchers to assess pollution levels in each individual box. “Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we could know more exactly what people are breathing,” said first author Karn Vohra, a graduate student at University of Birmingham.
“With satellite data, you’re seeing only pieces of the puzzle,” added study co-author Loretta J. Mickley, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles, and there can be gaps in the data.”
The research reflected a nearly 50% reduction in China’s fossil fuel emissions between 2012 and 2018, Harvard says.
“While emission rates are dynamic, increasing with industrial development or decreasing with successful air quality policies, China’s air quality changes from 2012 to 2018 are the most dramatic because population and air pollution there are both large,” said Marais. “Similar cuts in other countries during that time period would not have had as large an impact on the global mortality number.”
The study shines a light on fossil fuel use as “our greatest public health challenge,” write Dr. Arvind Kumar, founder and trustee of the Lung Cancer Foundation, and Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, in a post for Thomson Reuters.
“Scientists have documented that air pollution is connected to a broad array of adverse health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma, lung cancer, neurological damage, and birth defects,” they say, but the new study is one of the first to point to the proportion specifically caused by fossil fuels.
“What’s more, the study finds that thousands of children under the age of five die prematurely each year from lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution from fossil fuel combustion.”
With numbers like these, “we can no longer afford to look at ending our use of fossil fuels as only an environmental issue—it’s the greatest global health threat we face,” Kumar and Cohen state. “We need a strong political commitment in place to speed up this transition towards clean, renewable energy. And it is imperative that economic recovery plans, as we come out of the pandemic, focus on climate-smart investments that put public health at the core. The time to act is now—tomorrow may be too late.”