A new report finds that ultra-fine particulate matter emitted from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 1 in 5 premature deaths worldwide, including more than 300,000 deaths a year in the United States.
Fossil fuels, like diesel and coal, generate fine particles that can invade lungs and lead to a wide range of health problems including strokes, heart attacks and asthma.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, used methods that excluded other sources of fine particulates. It was conducted jointly by Harvard University and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester in the United Kingdom.
The term “premature death” refers to someone dying before they rightly should, explains Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard. Bernstein did not work directly on this study. At a population level, Bernstein says, researchers know that in any given year, people die at certain ages. When there are higher levels of pollution, more people die at younger ages than usual.
“These authors wanted to understand not what air pollution…in total does to health; they wanted to understand what the proportion of that pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels does to human health,” he explains.
“Globally, they estimate that somewhere around 8-plus million people are dying every year from air pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels, which is roughly one in five deaths worldwide, which is just stunning.”
“Regardless of where the air pollution happens, it's pretty much universally the case that people who are less well off are breathing more [of it].”
These early deaths fall disproportionately on “everybody who can least afford it,” Bernstein adds. “[I]t turns out that pollution and poverty are really close bedfellows,” he explains. “Regardless of where the air pollution happens, it's pretty much universally the case that people who are less well off are breathing more [of it].”
He continues, "In the United States, we have definitive evidence that people of color, particularly Black Americans, and Latinx Americans, breathe more air pollution than the rest of us. ... And they are also least responsible for its production, meaning that they consume less goods that in their production result in the production of these air pollutants.”
Research also clearly shows that anyone with a chronic medical condition is at risk — particularly people with heart disease or lung disease, pregnant women, and children with asthma. Particulate air pollution also causes lung cancer, Bernstein adds. “And there's a whole host of other nasty stuff that's coming into clear focus around the effects of air pollution on brain health, including on dementia.”
Air quality in the US has improved dramatically in the past several decades, but those gains have not been equally shared, Bernstein notes. White Americans have benefited most. And one of the consequences of the US cleaning up its air is that “we’ve now exported the pollution.”
Manufacturing bases have moved from richer countries to low- and middle-income countries where pollution controls are often less stringent. “This study, and others, have shown that the places that are really suffering most from this air pollution are in Asia, particularly in China and India and Southeast Asia, where the lion's share of the mortality from outdoor air pollution is happening,” Bernstein says.
“If we...included the health effects of our production system and the reliance on fossil fuels, we would be off fossil fuels tomorrow, because no one could afford using them.”
“There's a real need to look at how we are valuing energy and goods when it comes to health,” he continues. “And if we, in fact, included the health effects of our production system and the reliance on fossil fuels, we would be off fossil fuels tomorrow, because no one could afford using them.”
For Bernstein, the most important takeaway from the study is that “we have so much more to gain than we previously understood by getting ourselves off fossil fuels, and that the health gains that we can achieve are going to benefit the folks who have been harmed the most — namely, people who are less well off [and] people of color, particularly Black Americans and Latinx Americans.”
While moving away from fossil fuels will save the climate, save lives and save money, we must also remember, Bernstein notes, that millions of people in the US and around the world — generations of families, in some cases — have spent their lives “dedicated to mining, transporting, processing and delivering fossil fuels. And we can't simply move on without addressing the reality that these families need help with this transition.”
But a future of continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels is not sustainable, Bernstein suggests.
“Might we have technologies to capture greenhouse gases out of the air that are cost effective? Sure,” he says. “There are all kinds of technologies that might happen. But the science tells us we need to reduce our emissions massively in the next decade or we're going to be living in a world that people are increasingly not going to like living in.”