Tens of thousands of lives would be saved each year in the United States if common air pollution from burning fossil fuels were eliminated, a new study has found. Research points to the enormous health benefits of moving away from coal, oil and gasoline.
Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimate that about 50,000 premature deaths would be prevented each year if microscopic air pollutants called particulates were eliminated in the United States.
“These [particles] penetrate deep into the lungs and cause respiratory and heart ailments,” says Jonathan Patz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the study’s authors. “They’re pretty much the worst polluter in terms of mortality and hospitalization.”
Premature deaths and hospitalizations are also extremely costly to the US economy. The study estimates that eliminating this air pollution would save around $600 billion each year.
Fossil fuel combustion is a primary source of fine particulate pollution in the United States. The new study is the latest reminder that climate change and public health are intertwined, and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions not only reduces the long-term risk of global warming; it can save lives immediately by reducing pollution.
Fine particles, also called PM2.5 by scientists and regulators, are pollutants generated by the burning of fossil fuels, forest fires and certain industrial processes. They are about 1/30th the width of a human hair, which means they can lodge deep in the lungs.
Worldwide, it is estimated that millions of people die prematurely each year due to outdoor air pollution, estimates the World Health Organization. More than a million deaths worldwide from fine particulate air pollution could be avoided in just one year if the burning of fossil fuels were eliminated, according to a separate study published last year.
Air quality in much of the United States is better than the global average. But the remaining pollution is still deadly, especially for those who live in hotspots next to factories, power stations and highways. This includes a disproportionate number of neighborhoods that have been shaped by government-sponsored housing discrimination.
“Even with the Clean Air Act in the United States, we still have more than 100,000 Americans dying prematurely from air pollution each year,” says Patz, who has studied the links between climate change and human health for decades. “It is a significant health hazard.”
Not all fuels are equally dangerous. For example, coal gives off extremely intense pollution. But the United States is burning much less coal than just ten years ago. This has helped the electricity sector become a bit cleaner, although the study still attributes around 9,000 premature deaths each year to pollution from power plants. Fossil fuel cars, trucks and other vehicles are responsible for around 11,000 premature deaths, according to the study.