Fossil Fuel Air Pollution Kills 10.2 Million People Every Year, New Research Finds

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Feb. 10 2021, Published 1:02 p.m. ET

air pollution
Source: Getty Images

We know that air pollution is killing people, and we know that fossil fuels are killing people — but the results of a new study show that air pollution specifically caused by burning fossil fuels is killing people at an absolutely astounding rate. The researchers found that fossil fuel-caused air pollution prematurely kills around 10.2 million people every year.

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fossil fuel caused air pollution
Source: Getty Images

Fossil fuel-caused air pollution causes millions more deaths every year than previously thought.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) website, air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year — but the results of this new study indicate that the true statistic may be even higher. 

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The new study, published in February 2021 in the journal Environmental Research, explained that burning fossil fuels including coal, diesel, and gasoline (primarily for powering vehicles, as well as other activities) produces particulate matter (PM2.5). These are tiny, inhalable particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. 

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Researchers from Harvard University, the University of Leicester, and the University of Birmingham estimate that PM2.5 from burning fossil fuels caused 10.2 million premature deaths in 2012, mostly in China (3.9 million) and India (2.5 million), followed by parts of the eastern U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia. China, the U.S., and India are the world’s top three fossil fuel users, in that order — in fact, those three countries use 54 percent of fossil fuels worldwide (by weight), per CleanTechnica.

In 2018, PM2.5 from fossil fuels killed 8.7 million people prematurely. As The Guardian noted, that represents one in five global deaths that year. 

“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,” co-author Eloise Marais told The Guardian. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”

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How does air pollution kill people?

The PM2.5 and other air pollutants emitted by burning fossil fuels can cause a variety of serious conditions in humans, such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, lung cancer, and serious respiratory infections, according to the WHO. PM2.5 can also cause other conditions that are not necessarily life-threatening in themselves, but can mount over time, such as asthma, decreased lung function, trouble breathing, and impaired visibility (haze), according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This is much more than an environmental issue — it’s an issue of environmental justice, and an attack on BIPOC and low-income communities. People who cannot afford healthcare are forced to suffer through these issues, and it’s unjustly killing them.

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We need to shift to renewable energy.

The researchers conclude their study with a call to action: we need to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. “Fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources and precursors of PM2.5 such as dust or wildfire smoke, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivize a shift to clean sources of energy,” they wrote. 

Moving away from fossil fuels and protecting the planet is not just something diehard environmentalists should care about — it’s something that everyone on Earth should care about, because our greed for fossil fuels is killing us.

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