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Study: Far more UK deaths from fossil fuel air pollution than previously thought

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing far more deaths each year in the UK than previously thought, a study has said.

An estimated 99,000 deaths in 2012 were attributable to long-term exposure to harmful fine particles, known as PM2.5, emitted from fossil fuel sources such as vehicle engines, the research found.

The new analysis puts the figure much higher than previous estimates of around 40,000 early deaths linked to all sources of outdoor air pollution.

It means air pollution from fossil fuels played a role in 17% of deaths in the UK, the study estimated.

Worldwide, fossil fuel pollution was linked to 8.7 million deaths in 2018, the researchers from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found.

Toxic air from burning fossil fuels including coal and diesel is responsible for around one in five deaths worldwide, the researchers said.

The scientists used GEOS-Chem, a global 3D model of atmospheric chemistry, to map where pollution is and where people live to “know more exactly what people are breathing”, according to Karn Vohra, a graduate student at University of Birmingham and first author of the study.

They also developed a new model that linked the concentration levels of particles from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes, which found a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to the pollution, including at lower concentrations.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research, the scientists said the findings sent a clear message on the health benefits of moving away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, as part of efforts to tackle climate change.

Professor Eloise Marais, from University College London, said: “Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health.

“We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives.”

Study co-author Professor Joel Schwartz, from Harvard, said: “Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases.

“We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

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