Prepared by Kim Perrotta, MHSc – April 15, 2021
In Feb 2021, a new study from public health researchers at Harvard University and three British universities concluded that air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for 1 in 5 premature deaths worldwide.
This study estimates that airborne fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from the burning of fossil fuels alone is responsible for 10.2 million premature deaths each year globally. This is more than double the estimate from a 2015 study which attributed 4.2 million premature deaths each year to airborne PM2.5 from all sources.
PM2.5 is one of the common air pollutants; the one most clearly and consistently associated with increased risks of chronic diseases and premature deaths from ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) and acute respiratory infections.
The results from this study are much greater than the 2015 study for a number of reaons including: it includes risk co-efficients for health impacts that have now been demonstrated at lower levels of exposure; it includes a greater number causes of deaths; and it includes populations down to the age of 15.
In Canada, the study found that PM2.5 from fossil fuels alone are responsible for 34,000 premature death each year or 13.6% of all premature deaths in this country. To put this number into perspective, consider the fact that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 23,500 people in Canada over the last year.
Using the older methodology, Health Canada estimated in 2021 that air pollution from all sources was responsible for15,300 premature deaths, 2.7 million asthma symptom days, and 15 million acute respiratory symptom days, each year. These health impacts were valued at $120 billion per year.
Fossil fuels are the most significant source of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. By phasing out fossil fuels to fight climate change, we can avoid 36,000 premature deaths per year in this country alone. Many of the actions needed to fight climate change will produce immediate and significant health benefits for all of us.