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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:
- Identified at least 21 different hazardous air pollutants, as defined by the U.S. EPA, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and hexane, in consumer-grade natural gas supplied to Massachusetts.
- 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.
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…
Public Health Benefits Associated with Mercury Emissions Reductions from U.S. Power Plants
Our new white paper makes a science-based case for why it is appropriate and necessary to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector.
2019 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the U.S.
Every child born today will be affected by climate change. How we respond will shape the health of children across the globe.
Where to install renewable energy to get the greatest climate and health benefits in the U.S.
A guide for state and national policymakers designing climate plans and for utility and investor decisions.
Many 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.
House Dust in Mining-Impacted Communities May Impact Children's Health
Young children are a particular concern because early exposures to metals commonly found at mining sites are associated with neurodevelopmental deficits.
Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal
Life cycle impacts of coal cost the US public a third to over one half a trillion dollars annually.
How Dangerous are Underground Natural Gas Storage Wells?
Study explores the risks of aging infrastructure throughout the United States.
Estimating Public Health Impacts from Individual Power Plants
A tool to help policy-makers design policies and interventions.
Health Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards for Existing Power Plants
Analyzing the clean air and health benefits of power plant carbon standards in the U.S.
What the Supreme Court's Stunning Rulings Mean for Your Health
Our Director weighs in on the health impacts of the Supreme Court decision to limit the power of EPA.
Gas Piped Into Homes Contains Benzene and Other Risky Chemicals, Study Finds
Our study analyzed 234 samples of unburned natural gas in homes throughout the Greater Boston Area.
Scientists tested the natural gas used in kitchen stoves around Boston. They found dangerous chemicals.
Our scientists found 21 chemicals designated as hazardous by EPA.
Natural Gas Used in Homes Contains Hazardous Air Pollutants
Our study finds that natural gas used in homes throughout the Greater Boston area contains varying levels of hazardous air pollutants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.