New research has shown that almost one-fifth of global deaths in 2018 were caused by pollution from burning fossil fuels, putting new emphasis on calls to curb dangerous levels of air pollution.
8.7 million deaths were attributed to pollution caused by emitters including power plants, cars and other sources – a far higher figure than previous estimates – leading researchers to conclude that burning fossil fuels is killing more people worldwide than smoking and malaria combined.
Scientists have long known that air pollution leads to increased mortality, with dangerous fine particular matter known as PM2.5 proven to both cause and exacerbate health conditions like heart disease, respiratory illness and some forms of cancer. This new study, however, surpasses almost all previous worst-case scenarios for the impact of air pollution on global deaths, putting the number of deaths at more than double the figure estimated by a landmark 2019 study that also took into account pollution from natural sources like wildfires.
Unsurprisingly, regions that are most reliant on fossil fuel-based energy like coal and oil burning see that highest levels of pollution-related deaths. Worst off is Eastern Asia, where as many as 30% of deaths of people aged 14 and over can be at least partially put down to air pollution. And despite growing attempts in western regions to switch to cleaner energy sources, fine particular matter remains a significant killer, being responsible for 16% of deaths in Europe and 13% in North America.
Long-term exposure to air pollution also contributes to a shocking number of deaths among children, with 13.6% of deaths of children aged 5 or under in Europe said to be related to PM2.5 from burning fossil fuels.
Yet although the evidence supporting air pollution’s contribution to increased mortality is growing more and more overwhelming, it is still rarely formally recognised as a cause of death. In the UK, 2020 saw the country’s first case where air pollution was officially listed as a factor on a death certificate, following a second coroner’s verdict into the death of nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah from asthma in 2013.
Speaking about the study, ENT physician Neelu Tummala told The Guardian that ‘we don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer’, adding that ‘the air we breathe impacts everyone’s health but particularly children, older individuals, those on low incomes and people of colour. Usually people in urban areas have the worst impacts’.
The research found that cutting fossil fuel emissions completely would add a year to global average life expectancy, and could also benefit the economy by saving up to $2.5 trillion in economic and health costs.
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Topics: Health, Air Pollution, Carbon Emissions, Fossil Fuels, Now