Air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels caused 8.7m deaths in 2018—one in five of all people who passed that year.
The new research published in the journal Environmental Research is a more detailed analysis of the impact of PM2.5 particles in the air on health and death rates. The study demonstrates that countries with more fossil fuel consumption suffer the highest death tolls—showcasing that 1 in 10 deaths in US and Europe were related to air pollution.
“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. It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”—Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and a study co-author
The new estimate of deaths take into account several health issues related to the tiny specks of air pollution (PM2.5). The myriad of diseases caused can include heart diseases, respiratory problems and even loss of eyesight.
To chart the death toll researchers used a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry overseen by Nasa that can distinguish between pollution sources—this is a more accurate picture what specific types of pollution people are breathing.
“We don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer. 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.”— said Neelu Tummala, an ear, nose and throat physician at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
The study was a joint collaboration between scientists at Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London. It shows that without fossil fuels health costs worldwide would fall by $2.9tn and undoubtedly millions of lives would be saved. The staggering death toll demonstrates that air pollution is a “key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease”—killing more than malaria and tobacco combined.
“Fossil fuels have a really large impact upon health, the climate and the environment and we need a more immediate response. Some governments have carbon-neutral goals but maybe we need to move them forward given the huge damage to public health. We need much more urgency.”— Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and a study co-author.