Fossil Fuel Pollution Is Prematurely Killing Millions Every Year


photograph by russel ALBERT daniels

A new study published in Environmental Research finds that more than 8 million people are dying prematurely each year due to air pollution connected to fossil fuels. Unlike other forms of air pollution, governmental leaders can actually do something about this. The Frontline breaks down this new research and what it may mean for global climate and health policy.

Some forms of air pollution are natural and somewhat inevitable. At the very least, they’re hard to control. Like wildfire smoke: When thousands of acres are ablaze, the more urgent concern is often people’s lives and property—not the long-term health of their lungs or heart. And as much as we hate wildfires, we can’t exactly stop them from happening. Or what about air pollution from dust storms in Africa? Nature can create poor air quality on its own; some of it can’t be stopped.


But some of it can. Take fossil fuels, for example. All the particulate matter and crap our power plants, planes, cars, and generators emit are actually totally preventable. We can take action on this—and we should. According to a new paper out Tuesday, fossil fuels are responsible for 8.7 million premature deaths a year. That’s more than 8 million people who would’ve lived longer, healthier lives if their air quality weren’t such shit.


Welcome to The Frontline, your daily reminder that lives are on the line. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. We didn’t need another reason to transition off fossil fuels, but here we have it. Coal, oil, and gas are killing millions around the world, but they don’t have to. This is a source of air pollution we can, indeed, stop.







Several months ago, George Washington Medical Faculty Associates ear, nose, and throat doctor Neelu Tummala was seeing a patient. Something the patient said, however, really stuck with her. She made a joke about wearing masks, and he shared that he has been wearing face masks for years because his breathing would worsen when he’d step outside without one. Turns out, he lives near busy roads—i.e. fossil fuel pollution from cars.


“I remember this because it reminded me a lot of my uncle in India—we’re from South India—who also has been wearing a mask for a long time whenever he goes outside because the air quality irritates his breathing,” says Tummala, who is not an author on this study. “It was a little bit of an eye opener.”


India, in fact, sees 2.46 million premature deaths a year, according to a new report. Published in the journal Environmental Research, the new study takes a global look at the issue of fossil fuel-created air pollution. Air pollution can lead to premature death because of how particulate matter affects our body. This study takes a look at PM 2.5, one of the smaller types of particulate matter that can enter the bloodstream when inhaled, posing threats to our cardiovascular systems and even neurological systems.

“The more that we’re all aware of a health issue—that we’re aware of how grave of a health impact air pollution has—the more inclined people are to do something about it, the more we can push policy makers to make more aggressive changes.”

Neelu Tummala

When people are exposed over longer periods of time, that’s a recipe for disaster. As long as the world runs on oil, coal, and gas, the people who live closest to these polluters will continue to suffer. However, we now have other options: clean renewable energy and electric vehicles. Abandoning fossil fuel infrastructure can dramatically clean our air, resulting in healthier people and a more habitable planet in the long term.


To arrive at the 8.7 million premature deaths this study estimates, the team of scientists—from the University College London to Harvard University—used a chemical transport model that assesses how particulate matter and other pollutants travel through our atmosphere. The team overlaid these simulations of emissions with global population data, whose availability varied depending on the region. Asia and Africa, for instance, don’t have as much data, so those findings aren’t as solid. And while these are all estimates—and potentially underestimates—they’re important numbers to have, Tummala says.


“The more that we’re all aware of a health issue—that we’re aware of how grave of a health impact air pollution has—the more inclined people are to do something about it, the more we can push policy makers to make more aggressive changes,” she says.


President Joe Biden says he’s serious about taking the climate crisis seriously. Well, if he is, we’ll need to transition off all these dirty sources of energy and fuel as soon as is humanly possible. We’ll save many, many lives along the way—but only if we all do it. If global leaders set more ambitious emissions targets and take steps to actually meet them, we’ll have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. People are dying all over the globe, but they deserve to live as long as the rest of us.

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