Air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil caused 8.7 million deaths worldwide in 2018, one in five of all people who died that year, according to new research.
Countries with the most prodigious consumption of fossil fuels in power plants, homes and vehicles suffer the highest number of deaths, with the study showing that more than one in ten deaths, both in the United States and in Europe, it was caused by the resulting pollution, along with nearly a third of the deaths in East Asia, which includes China. Mortality rates in South America and Africa were significantly lower.
The huge number of deaths is higher than previous estimates and surprised even the researchers in the study. “Initially we were very hesitant when we got the results because they are amazing, but we are increasingly finding out more about the impact of this pollution,” said Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and co-author of the study. “It simply came to our notice then. The more we look for impacts, the more we find. “
The 8.7 million deaths in 2018 represent a “key factor for the global burden of mortality and disease,” the study states, which is the result of collaboration between scientists at Harvard University, Harvard University. Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London. The death toll exceeds the combined total of people who die worldwide each year from smoking tobacco plus those who die of malaria.
Scientists have established links between widespread air pollution from burning fossil fuels and cases of heart disease, respiratory disease and even vision loss. Without fossil fuel emissions, the average life expectancy of the world’s population would increase by more than a year, while global economic and health costs would fall by about $ 2.9 million.
The new death estimate, published in the journal Environmental Research, is higher than other previous attempts to quantify the deadly cost of fossil fuels. A major Lancet report in 2019, for example, found 4.2 million deaths annually from air pollution from dust and smoke from forest fires, as well as from burning fossil fuels.
This new research deploys a more detailed analysis of the impact of airborne soot particles from power plants, cars, trucks and other sources. This particle is known as PM2.5 because the particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or about 30 times smaller than the diameter of average human hair. These small spots of contamination, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause various health problems.
“We don’t appreciate air pollution being an invisible killer,” said Neelu Tummala, an ear, nose and throat doctor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “The air we breathe affects the health of everyone, particularly children, the elderly, the low-income and people of color. People in urban areas usually have the worst impacts. ”
Instead of relying solely on average estimates of satellite and surface observations that explain PM2.5 from a number of sources, the researchers used a NASA-supervised global atmospheric chemistry 3D model that has a more detailed resolution. and that it can distinguish between sources of pollution. “Instead of relying on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we can know more exactly what people are breathing,” said Karn Vohra, a graduate student at the University of Birmingham. -author.
The researchers developed a new risk assessment based on a stretch of new research that has found a much higher mortality rate from fossil fuel emissions than was even thought, even at relatively low concentrations. Data were taken from 2012 and after 2018 to take into account the rapid improvements in air quality in China. Deaths were counted for people 15 years of age or older.
The results show a varied global picture. “China’s air quality is improving, but its fine particle concentrations continue to be surprisingly, the U.S. is improving, although there are hotspots in the Northeast, Europe is a mixed bag and India is certainly a hot spot, ”Marais said.
According to George Thurston, an expert in health and air pollution at New York University School of Medicine (NYU) who did not participate in the research, the death toll described in the study may even be a underestimation of the real picture. “Overall, however, this new work makes it clearer than ever that when we talk about the human cost of air pollution or climate change, the main causes are the same: the burning of fossil fuels,” he said.
Philip J Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health and the Common Good program, said: “Recent research has been exploring the use of new exposure response features and several recent articles using these more recent features. have produced higher pollution estimates. related mortality than Global Burden of Disease analyzes. “He added:” I consider it important that different risk assessment models are now being developed, because their development will force and re-examine the assumptions underlying current models and improve them. .
Ed Avol, head of the environmental health division at the University of Southern California (USC), said: “The authors have applied improved methodologies to better quantify exposures and better document health outcomes in order to reach the disturbing (but not surprising) conclusion that air pollution related to fossil combustion is more detrimental to global human health than previously estimated. ‘Research team are highly competent researchers and among the most talented scholars in this dynamic field.’
“Fossil fuels have a really significant impact on health, climate and the environment and we need a more immediate response,” Marais said. “Some governments have carbon-neutral targets, but maybe we need to push them forward given the huge damage to public health. We need a lot more urgency.”