Number of deaths connected to fine particulate matter from fossil fuel burning could be twice as high as previously thought, research says
Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, a new study suggests.
The research finds air pollution from fossil fuel burning accounted for around 10 million premature deaths in 2012 – with China and India seeing the largest number of lives cut short.
The number of deaths associated with air pollution from fossil fuels fell to 8.7 million in 2018, the study estimates, as a result of significant improvements to air quality in China. This figure represents around 18 per cent of the total number of deaths recorded in 2018, the researchers say.
Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study focuses specifically on deaths attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution. “PM2.5 can penetrate deep into our lungs,” Karn Vohra, study lead author and a PhD student in environmental health sciences at University of Birmingham, told The Independent.
Evidence suggests exposure to PM2.5 is linked to a range of serious health problems, including respiratory illnesses, strokes and heart attacks.
“We estimate a global mortality burden of 8.7 million premature deaths in 2018 from fossil fuel PM2.5 pollution,” Mr Vohra said.
“The highest mortality burdens are estimated over regions with substantial fossil fuel combustion, notably India, China and parts of eastern US, Europe and Southeast Asia.”
For the research, the scientists used a high-resolution mathematical model to study global concentrations of PM2.5 specifically from fossil fuel burning.
They also made use of a new health risk assessment model to estimate the total number of premature deaths that can be attributed to PM2.5 pollution from fossil fuel burning.
The finding that PM2.5 pollution from fossil fuels could account for 8.7 million – or one in five – premature deaths a year is more than double that of previous estimates. (This estimate is for 2018, before the start of the Covid pandemic.)
The most recent assessment on the global causes of mortality published by The Lancet found that all “outdoor particulate matter” – which includes dust and smoke from fires as well as fossil fuel burning – accounted for 4.2 million deaths globally each year.
In the UK, the number of deaths attributable to air pollution from fossil fuels could also be higher than thought, according to the results.
The new research estimates that, in 2012, around 99,000 people died prematurely as a result of air pollution from fossil fuels in the UK. Previous estimates had suggested that between 28,000 and 36,000 people will die each year as a result of exposure to all types of air pollution in the UK.
Mr Vohra said the uptick in the global number of deaths attributable to fossil fuel pollution was linked to the high-resolution models used in the research.
Dr Thomas Smith, an assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics who wasn’t involved in the study, said the modelling techniques used by the researchers marked “an important step forward”.
“A key advance is related to the model,” he told The Independent. “This has a fine spatial resolution which allows it to better represent ‘pollution hotspots’, such as cities. Previous studies using lower-resolution models that might have ‘smoothed-out’ these pollution hotspots.”
However, there is still uncertainty around the global number of deaths attributable to air pollution from fossil fuels, Mr Vohra added.
The study provides a central estimate of 8.7 million premature deaths a year, but notes a possible range of between -1.8 million to up to 14 million.
“The uncertainty is due to the relatively limited number of epidemiological studies of the very high PM2.5 concentrations typical of China,” said Mr Vohra.
“The wide range of uncertainty at these higher PM2.5 concentrations should be an incentive for additional studies to improve our estimates at these high concentrations.”
Overall, the findings add to “the urgency to shift to cleaner sources of energy”, he added.
In addition to causing air pollution, fossil fuels also damage human health by driving 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, which include worsening extreme weather events and shifts to disease risk.
“The lethal health impacts of climate change and air pollution – two of the most pressing global health issues of our time – have to be arrested,” said Dr Ronald Law, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington and chief of health emergency preparedness in the Philippines.
“Bold actions to shift to clean energy sources is a must if we are to better protect the health of our planet, society and people, now and in the future.”Air pollution from fossil fuels responsible for ‘one in five deaths worldwide’ | The Independent
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