They are two sides, harmful, of the same coin. The massive burning of fossil fuels that emits the greenhouse gases that cause climate change at the same time expels millions of tons of microscopic particles called PM 2.5 that end up in the lungs of those who breathe them. People inhale them for years, causing damage to their bodies that has now been quantified: 20% of premature deaths in the world are due to these PM 2.5 generated by burning coal, diesel or gasoline. There are eight million deaths, as they have just calculated the universities of Harvard, London College and Birmingham.
Regions with more fossil fuel-related pollution have higher mortality rates. That simple Western Europe, the eastern US and Southeast Asia are the worst performing areas, according to the study. In Spain, it is estimated that deaths attributable to PM 2.5 reach 44,600, just over 10% of the annual deaths of people over 14 years of age.
“The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, gasoline and diesel, is a main source of airborne particles and a crucial cause of mortality and disease,” explains this team Journal Environmental Research. And, in addition, the authors reflect that, when the issue of burning fossil fuels is addressed, it is usually done with regard to the greenhouse effect and the climate crisis that it entails, but “the impact on health of the toxic emitted at the same time as these gases, “recalls Joel Schwartz, professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard.
The toxins that pollution carries
Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels have not stopped growing during the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, they jumped 62% between 1990 and 2019, according to “scientific evidence.” collected by the UN. They account for approximately three quarters of the CO2 released into the atmosphere. And with them, a large number of fine particles. This work shows how both phenomena are inextricably linked: the pollution created by the crust of gases that causes global warming carries other toxins that directly harm the health of those who inhale them.
This study updates the previous recorded findings. And it doubles the dimension of the problem. Until now, it has been estimated that up to 4.2 million premature deaths annually (measured in 2015) were related to PM. But the scientists had a hard time refining their observations as satellite images were not able to distinguish well between the particles released by fossil fuels and those that came from intrusions of desert dust or forest fires. This time they have used another tool for modeling of atmospheric chemistry called GEOS-Chem.
This methodology has allowed, they indicate, to better delimit the nuclei where the pollution caused by burning coal, gasoline or diesel for energy is concentrated. “More than relying on averages [de presencia de PM] applied to large regions, we wanted to locate where the pollution is and where the population lives to be able to know more exactly what people are breathing, “explains Karn Vohra, PhD at the University of Birmingham and lead author of the study. Once the concentrations are located of particles and their origin, the researchers reviewed the epidemiological data of the populations, and from there the results have emerged.
Typically, studies of this type looked at the relationship with five main causes of death: ischemic heart disease, stroke, obstructive pulmonary disease, acute respiratory infections and lung cancer. “This time we have analyzed all the causes,” they warn in the article.
Children, much more vulnerable
The study has also been able to review the effect on children under five years of age in some areas such as the US and Europe. This group is especially vulnerable to these toxins due to their rapidly developing brain and still immature respiratory, immune and detoxification systems. “Children, in addition, breathe more air per kilo of body than adults, so they are more exposed to pollutants”, clarifies the research that affects that “this highlights the need to intervene to reduce the risk of children” . In December 2020, the first sentence was given that judicially proven that pollution influenced the death of a London girl. Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah passed away at the age of nine after spending three of them suffering from respiratory crisis. He lived in an area heavily polluted by traffic in the British capital. A traffic of cars that burn fossil fuel to move.
The scientists’ conclusions reveal that this problem is greater than previously thought and a kind of time bomb that explodes over the years. Specifically, they explain that there is “a higher mortality rate due to long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions even at low concentrations.” This means that, although the amount of particles that are measured is relatively low, its harmful effect accumulates over time until it significantly deteriorates health.
The researchers conclude: “We send a clear message to legislators about the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”