Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing more than twice as many deaths as thought, a study has found

A recent study has shown that fine particle pollution is having a a greater health cost than previously thought. The authors said that the higher number was due to better understanding of the impacts of fine particles thanks to studies which tracked large groups of people over time and compared pollution levels where they lived and their health. Ben Webster discusses the study in an article on The Times website.

 

Pollution from fossil fuels twice as deadly as thought, scientists warn

Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing more than twice as many deaths as thought, a study has found.

Almost one in five deaths in the UK is linked to fine particle pollution from road traffic, power generation and other activities that involve burning petrol, diesel, coal and gas, according to scientists from Harvard University and University College London.

They calculated that in 2012 fine particles were a contributory factor in 99,000 deaths in the UK, more than double the estimate published in 2016 by the Royal College of Physicians of 40,000 deaths a year from all sources of outdoor air pollution.

The authors said that the higher number was due to better understanding of the impacts of fine particles thanks to studies which tracked large groups of people over time and compared pollution levels where they lived and their health.

In recent years many studies have found that air pollution caused or exacerbated a range of conditions, including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and kidney failure.

The new study suggests that there are immediate benefits from shifting away from using fossil fuels to complement long-term benefits in terms of reducing the impact of climate change.

The team used a 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry which involved splitting the world into a grid with boxes measuring 50km by 60km and studying pollution levels in each box.

They also used a new risk assessment model developed by epidemiologists from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes. The researchers found that globally, exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 8.7 million deaths in 2018, or 18 per cent of all deaths. The proportion has fallen from 21.5 per cent of total deaths in 2012 due to stronger air quality measures in China, the study adds.

In the UK fine particles contributed to 17 per cent of deaths in 2012, according to the study in the journal Environmental Research.

This newspaper’s Clean Air for All campaign is calling for legally binding limits on air pollution based on levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Dr Eloise Marais, one of the study’s authors and associate professor in physical geography at UCL, said: “With all of these new health studies we’re learning more and more about the adverse effects of air pollution on health. We are finding that air pollution is worse for us than we thought. 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.”

She said about three quarters of deaths caused by air pollution globally were linked to fossil fuel combustion and the remainder from other sources, such as burning wood and emissions from agriculture and wildfires.

Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard University and one of the study’s authors, said: “Often when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of carbon dioxide and climate change. [That can] overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases.

“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.”

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