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Fossil fuel air pollution causes nearly 1 in 5 deaths worldwide each year, research shows

How the pandemic is improving air quality
How the pandemic is improving air quality 02:23

More than 8 million people worldwide die each year from breathing polluted air containing particles from fossil fuel emissions — a significantly higher number than researchers previously believed. The staggering number accounts for nearly one in five of all deaths in 2018. 

According to new research from Harvard University and three British universities, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research, exposure to particulate matter from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil made up 18% of global deaths in 2018 — totaling 8.7 million.

Researchers found that regions with the highest concentrations of fossil-fuel related pollution have the highest rates of mortality. These regions include eastern North America, Europe and South-East Asia, which includes China and India. 

"Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health," study co-author Eloise Marais 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."

The findings nearly double the total number of deaths compared to previous research

The largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of mortality worldwide put the total number of annual deaths for outdoor airborne particulate matter at just 4.2 million. Previous research relied on satellite and surface observations, which failed to discern the difference between particles from fossil fuels and those from dust, wildfires and other sources. 

"With satellite data, you're seeing only pieces of the puzzle," said co-author Loretta J. Mickley. "It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles, and there can be gaps in the data." 

Global emissions to drop 8% during pandemic 08:49

Burning fossil fuels produce greenhouse gasses, which trap radiation from the sun, which is partially responsible for the climate crisis. But it also produces a "toxic cocktail" of tiny particles capable of entering our lungs, causing asthma, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and early death, among other health issues. 

Researchers analyzed this particulate matter, known as PM2.5, from a wide range of sectors, including power plants, planes, cars and other sources. They used a global 3D model that can distinguish between various pollution sources, allowing them to hone in on exactly what people are breathing in which regions. 

They found that as many as 30.7% of deaths in Eastern Asia, 16.8% in Europe and 13.1% in the U.S. can be attributed to fossil fuel pollution.

Researchers said the findings illuminate the critical importance of policy decisions. 

"Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it's in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases," said co-author Joel Schwartz. "We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources."

Researchers found that when China cut its fossil fuel emissions nearly in half in 2018, it saved 2.4 million lives globally, including 1.5 million in China alone. 

Air pollution has also been linked to more deaths from COVID-19. The air got cleaner in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, in large part because of the significant drop in transportation; however, experts are skeptical that the benefits will stick around post-pandemic. 

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