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Air pollution is considered to be the world’s largest environmental health threat, and a new study shows that the problem related to fossil fuel pollution is significantly worse than previous research suggested. 

Scientists have shed new light on the extent of this problem, revealing that 8.7 million people around the world died in 2018 as a result of breathing polluted air that contains particles from fossil fuels. The numbers are alarming since it shows that exposure to fossil fuel air pollution caused almost one in five deaths globally in that year alone.

The study explained

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London focused on tiny particles known as PM2.5 which are released when fossil fuels such as coal and oil are burnt. Anything from forest fires to the tailpipes of cars releases these poisonous particles.

PM2.5 refers to tiny dust particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in size, and they are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstreams, aggravating respiratory conditions like asthma. Chronic exposure to them can lead to lung cancer, coronary heart disease, strokes, and early death.

The researchers used a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry developed at Harvard to better understand the effects of pollution at a local level. In the study published in the journal Environmental Research, the researchers were able to combine this technology with previous assessments of PM2.5 pollution and get to the finer details.

The team separated the globe into a grid with boxes as small as 50 kilometers by 60 kilometers (31 miles by 37 miles) to examine boxes individually for different pollution levels. This technique enabled them to assess the impact of pollution in towns as well as distinguish the different sources of pollution.

The results showed a far higher mortality rate rising from long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions. China, India, parts of the eastern U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia seem to be the worst affected. Fossil fuel pollution caused as many as 30.7 percent of deaths in Eastern Asia, 16.8 percent in Europe, and 13.1 percent in the U.S., the data shows.

The figure is shocking since it is much higher than previous research showed. Scientists were estimating that 4.2 million people die annually from airborne particulate matter pollution, including sources such as dust and smoke from fires, as recently as 2019. According to this new study, an estimated 8.7 million deaths were linked to fossil fuel emissions alone in 2018.

The risk fossil fuel pollution poses to human health is “well-documented,” say the researchers. “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,” UCL’s Professor Eloise Marais, study co-author, said in a statement.

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