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Fossil fuels may be responsible for twice as many deaths as first thought

BURNING FOSSIL fuels does more than pump carbon into the atmosphere. As with all sources of air pollution, it releases a mix of gases and tiny particulate matter. The smallest class of these—known as PM2.5—can settle in people’s lungs and enter the bloodstream, where they can cause or exacerbate illnesses and, sometimes, lead to death.

The death toll is enormous, according to a new paper by researchers at Harvard University in America, and University College London (UCL) and the University of Birmingham in Britain. Their study, published in Environmental Research, estimates that in 2018, 8.7m global deaths were associated with breathing air pollution from fossil fuels, almost one-fifth of all deaths worldwide. That total is far higher than previous estimates. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD), a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that tallies the lives lost to hundreds of illnesses and injuries, puts deaths from air pollution at 4.2m in 2015. Moreover, the GBD estimate included all sources of outdoor and indoor pollution—including dust, burning organic matter (such as wildfires and deliberate agricultural fires) and cooking fuels—rather than just fossil fuels.


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