Small Particulates From Burning Fossil Fuels Kills 8.7 Million People Each Year

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Fossil fuels are the bane of our existence. All of us (well, almost all of us) know that the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that result from extracting and burning fossil fuels have led to a hotter environment, one which is less hospitable to human habitation. But what we didn’t know — until now — is the extent to which the fine particulate matter that results from the combustion of fossil fuels contributes to disease and premature death among humans.

Image credit: CDC

Fine particulate matter is invisible to the naked eye. Technically, it is defined as particles smaller than 2.5 microns — about 30 times smaller than a human hair. What’s the big deal about 2.5 microns? Particles that small can cross directly into the blood stream in the lungs, leading to all sorts of health issues like cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, lower cognitive functioning, and a host of other ailments. The young and the old are particularly vulnerable, as are people who live in the immediate vicinity of extraction operations, refineries, industrial facilities, and chemical factories.

“We don’t appreciate that air pollution is an invisible killer,” Neelu Tummala, an ear, nose and throat physician at George Washington University School of Medicine, tells The Guardian. “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.”

Twice As Many Deaths As Previously Thought

Researchers at 4 universities — Harvard, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London — collaborated on a new study that was able to focus on smaller segments of the atmosphere and associate specific pollution levels with health data. Their findings were published recently in the journal Environmental Research. According to a press release from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard, exposure to fine particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18 percent of total global deaths in 2018. That translates to about 8.7 million deaths — nearly double the amount suggested by previous studies. That is more deaths worldwide than from smoking and malaria combined. Regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution — including Eastern North America, Europe, and South East Asia — have the highest rates of mortality.

Instead of relying on satellite data alone as previous studies had done, the researchers were able to use GEOS-Chem, a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry led by Daniel Jacob, a professor at SEAS. GEOS-Chem has high spatial resolution, meaning the researchers can divide the globe into a grid with boxes as small as 50 km x 60 km and look at pollution levels in each box individually.

Previous research relied on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter, known as PM2.5. The problem is, satellite and surface observations can’t tell the difference between particles from fossil fuel emissions and those from dust, wildfire smoke or other sources. Using GEOS-Chem, the researchers were able to see the relationships they were studying more clearly.

“With satellite data, you’re seeing only pieces of the puzzle,” says Loretta Mickley of SEAS and co-author of the study. “It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles and there can be gaps in the data.” Karn Vohra of the University of Birmingham and first author of the study adds, “Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we could know more exactly what people are breathing.”


“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health. 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,” says Eloise Marais, associate professor at University College London. She tells The Guardian, the enormous death toll surprised even the researchers. But the point is not to despair in paralysis. Rather, the point is to take action.

“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,” said Joel Schwartz, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

A report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) cited by The Guardian claims that breaking the fossil fuel habit would lead to a reduction in economic and health costs worldwide of about $2.9 trillion a year. (Emphasis added.) In other words, we can’t afford not to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels.

The Takeaway

People have a hard time imaging what the world will look like in the future, even if that future is just 10 years from now. We talk about leaving a sustainable world to our grandchildren, but even that is an abstract concept. An extra year of life expectancy is not, however. Nor is $2.9 trillion in economic harm a year. This latest study means all of us — everyone reading this and all your family, friends, and co-workers — are getting sick and dying a little bit every day because of particulate pollution from burning fossil fuels. How much longer can we allow that insanity to prevail?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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