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Producing and burning fossil fuels creates air pollution that harms our health and generates toxic emissions that drive climate change.

 

From the electricity that lights our homes to the cars we drive to work, modern life was built on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. But burning them creates climate change and releases pollutants that lead to early death, heart attacks, respiratory disorders, stroke, asthma, and absenteeism at school and work. It has also been linked to autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested—meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about 1 in 5 deaths worldwide.

Each year, our team contributes to the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change to track the impacts of climate change on human health across 44 indicators around the world. Our research analyzes the health impacts of burning fossil fuels and shows how much we have to gain by ending our reliance on them. Recent research from our Center:

  • Created a new inventory of air pollution impacts from stationary sources over the past decade that shows the negative impacts of burning natural gas and biomass have surpassed coal generation in many states, which is a trend that may continue.
  • Conducted the first study to determine that Pennsylvania’s statewide setback regulations for fracking do not prevent setback incidents, and identified the potential risks and exposures for people living near fracking or underground natural gas wells.
  • Showed that more people live closer to underground gas storage wells than previously thought. An estimated 20,000 homes and 53,000 people in predominantly suburban areas of PA, OH, WV, MI, NY, and CA live within a city block of active underground natural gas storage wells.
  • Developed the science-based case for why it is “appropriate and necessary” for EPA to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector; and why the health benefits of regulation and remaining risks from mercury pollution in the U.S. should be assessed.

2021 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: U.S. Policy Report

Our response to climate change must prioritize and optimize health and equity. We can improve health through climate actions that reduce our use of fossil fuels.

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Methane Reductions in the Oil and Gas Sector can Protect Public Health

A literature review examines the last ten years of research on methane and health-damaging air pollutant emissions from the oil and gas industry.

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Negative impacts of burning natural gas and biomass have surpassed coal generation in many states

A new inventory of air pollution impacts from stationary sources over the past decade shows this trend may continue.

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Pennsylvania setback regulations for fracking do not prevent setback incidents

The first study to look at the effectiveness of PA's statewide setback regulations and identify the potential risks and exposures for people living near fracking or UNG wells.

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Pollution from fossil fuel combustion deadlier than previously thought

Fine particulate pollution from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for one in five early deaths worldwide in 2018, with vulnerable groups at greatest risk.

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Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide

New research finds that deaths from fossil fuel emissions are higher than previously thought—more than 8 million people per year, worldwide.

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'We Don't Have To Live This Way': Doctors Call For Climate Action

A sprawling analysis published by The Lancet focuses on public health data from 2019, and finds that heat waves, air pollution and extreme weather increasingly damage human health.

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Study: Regional transportation pact could save more than 1,000 lives

A regional initiative among 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states aimed at reducing carbon emissions from transportation could help avoid about 1,100 deaths and nearly 5,000 asthma cases each year, and could save more than $11 billion in health costs, according to a new analysis.

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Carbon Standards Re-Examined

Our researchers collaborated with other institutions on a working paper on what EPA’s finalized ACE Rule means for public health. The analysis calls into question the assumptions and predictions used in EPA’s cost-benefit analysis.

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Weakened mercury controls could lead to health harms

The Trump administration has weakened regulations regarding the release of mercury and other toxic metals from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Environmental and public health experts say the move is an attack on air quality and could harm health—particularly that of children. “What is most disconcerting to me is this administration’s lack of interest in…

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Fossil fuel extraction is harming Indigenous communities, say experts

Fossil fuel production causes environmental health effects in Indigenous communities, and leadership from frontline Indigenous activists has been critical in fighting these environmental injustices, according to experts who spoke at a Harvard Chan School event.

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Health consequences of using biomass for energy

Burning biomass has significant public health and environmental justice consequences, according to a recent opinion piece co-authored by Harvard Chan School’s Jonathan Buonocore.

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Biomass is not health neutral

Our Research Scientist Jonathan Buonocore writes that even as Congress declares biomass carbon neutral in the latest spending bill, burning it puts thousands of lives at risk.

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Another KY coal plant to retire, but the pollution remains

The Green Station coal power plant is transitioning to nuclear, but it will continue to leach harmful toxins.

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Vehicle emissions linked to thousands of deaths in northeast, Mid-Atlantic

An estimated 7,100 people in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions died as a result of exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions in 2016.

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New Study: The Health Impacts of the Coal-to-Gas Transition

A new study out from Harvard University explores the health impacts of transitioning from coal to other combustible fuels.

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Coal Phase-Down Has Lowered, Not Eliminated Health Risks From Building Energy, Study Says

Biomass and natural gas have become an increasingly large share of the health burden of fueling buildings and factories.

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Harvard Study Says Clean Electricity Will Prevent Premature Deaths

Reset’s sustainability contributor Karen Weigert introduces listeners to our researchers for a discussion on their study of how clean electricity will save lives.

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Law meant to push drilling further from houses had little impact, study finds

Grandfathered wells and exemptions put wells closer to homes, new study finds.

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As deaths from burning coal decline, natural gas now a leading hazard, study shows

Pollution from natural gas is now responsible for more deaths and greater health costs than coal in Illinois, according to a new study.

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Dr. Aaron Bernstein

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.

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Drew Michanowicz DrPH, CPH

Drew’s research interests are related to poorly understood and emerging environmental hazards on both global- and community-level scales.

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Jonathan Buonocore Sc.D

Jonathan focuses on the health, environmental, and climate impacts of energy, and the benefits of reducing carbon emissions—commonly called “health co-benefits.”

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