Number of deaths connected to fine particulate matter from fossil fuel burning could be twice as high as previously thought, research says

Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, a new study suggests

The research finds air pollution from fossil fuel burning accounted for around 10 million premature deaths in 2012 – with China and India seeing the largest number of lives cut short.

The number of deaths associated with air pollution from fossil fuels fell to 8.7 million in 2018, the study estimates, as a result of significant improvements to air quality in China. This figure represents around 18 per cent of the total number of deaths recorded in 2018, the researchers say.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study focuses specifically on deaths attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.

“PM2.5 can penetrate deep into our lungs,” Karn Vohra, study lead author and a PhD student in environmental health sciences at University of Birmingham, told The Independent.

Evidence suggests exposure to PM2.5 is linked to a range of serious health problems, including respiratory illnesses, strokes and heart attacks.

“The highest mortality burdens are estimated over regions with substantial fossil fuel combustion, notably India, China and parts of eastern US, Europe and Southeast Asia.”

For the research, the scientists used a high-resolution mathematical model to study global concentrations of PM2.5 specifically from fossil fuel burning.

They also made use of a new health risk assessment model to estimate the total number of premature deaths that can be attributed to PM2.5 pollution from fossil fuel burning.

The finding that PM2.5 pollution from fossil fuels could account for 8.7 million – or one in five – premature deaths a year is more than double that of previous estimates. (This estimate is for 2018, before the start of the Covid pandemic.)

The most recent assessment on the global causes of mortality published by The Lancet found that all “outdoor particulate matter” – which includes dust and smoke from fires as well as fossil fuel burning – accounted for 4.2 million deaths globally each year.