Air pollution is behind approximately one in every five deaths in the world, according to research conducted by Harvard University (USA) University College London, and two other British universities. The study published in the journal Environmental Research argues that more than eight million people die prematurely each year in the world from pollution derived from the burning of fossil fuels. The report significantly increases previous estimates, although it is in line with another recent study by the European Heart Journal which estimated at 8.8 million annual deaths caused by air pollution. WHO estimates that fatalities from poor air quality amount to at least 7 million a year including 3.5 million from burning fossil fuels inside homes in developing countries.

The new report corroborates the role of air pollution as an even more deadly factor than tobacco, for its contribution to respiratory diseases cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and various types of cancer. Our study provides new evidence on how air pollution contributes to declining global health says Eloise Marais a geographer at University College London. We cannot continue to rely in good conscience on fossil fuels, now that we know the health effects and that we have viable alternatives.

Normally, when we talk about the dangers of combustion, it is always in the context of CO2 and climate change, warns Joel Schwartz, co-author of the study and professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Until now, the potential health impact of polluting gases emitted at the same time as greenhouse gases has been underestimated. The research is mainly focused on the role of suspended particles of less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) which largely come from emissions from traffic and especially from diesel vehicles. Hopefully, this study serves to quantify the consequences of burning fossil fuels and to send a message to politicians and stakeholders about the benefits of a transition to other sources of energy added Joel Schwartz.

The report concludes that exposure to particulate matter present in the air of our cities could contribute to 21.5% of deaths in the world in 2012, although it fell to 18% in 2018 due to the measures adopted in China, the country most exposed to air pollution, followed by India Southeast Asia, eastern North America, and European urban areas are among the black spots for the concentration of polluting particles.

In Europe, premature deaths are estimated at almost 800,000. In Spain, it is estimated that 44,600 annual deaths of people over 40 years of age (10.7% of the total) can be attributed to pollution. The study goes beyond the conclusions reached from surface measurements and satellite observations. Harvard researchers have used the GEOS-Chem 3D atmospheric chemistry model (created by NASA’s Goddard Institute) and with a high spatial resolution, capable of dividing the Earth’s surface into small three-dimensional “boxes” of 50 by 60 kilometers and measure the levels of each box individually.

Instead of collecting average data in each region, we wanted to locate on the map where pollution is concentrated and where people to know exactly what they are breathing said Kam Vohra of the University of Birmingham who has also contributed to the study with the University of Leicester. The researchers calculated the relationship between particles smaller than 2.5 microns and pollutant emissions from various sectors from road traffic to industry through heating or power generation. After estimating the concentration of PM2.5 for each box they studied the impact on human health and detected a correlation higher than that estimated to date on the effect of air pollution, especially in China and India.

The Harvard University study can now serve as a benchmark in legal disputes such as the one undertaken over the death of the nine-year-old girl Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in February 2013 of an acute respiratory failure in London. She died of asthma caused by her excessive exposure to pollution certified British judge Philip Barlow. His entire life was spent in the vicinity of highly polluted roads. I have no difficulty in concluding that his personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter was very high and well above the maximum recommended by the World Organization for health.