Pollution from fossil fuel combustion deadlier than previously thought

A new study found that fine particulate pollution generated by the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for one in five early deaths worldwide in 2018—far more than previously thought. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Aaron Bernstein said that the people most at risk are those “who can least afford it.”

Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE), discussed the study in a March 19, 2021, interview on the PRX radio show “Living on Earth.”

The study, which was conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester in the U.K., found that, worldwide, 8 million premature deaths were linked to pollution from fossil fuel combustion, with 350,000 in the U.S. alone. Fine particulate pollution has been linked with health problems including lung cancer, heart attacks, asthma, and dementia, as well as higher death rates from COVID-19. Bernstein, who was not part of the study, called its estimates “just stunning.”

He said the groups impacted most by fine particulate pollution are those that are already vulnerable—people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, people with asthma, and low-income populations and people of color. He said that moving away from reliance on fossil fuels would not only greatly benefit health, but would also boost the economy with new jobs.

Listen to the “Living on Earth” interview: One in Five Deaths from Fossil Fuels