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Air Pollution From Fossil Fuels Responsible For 30% of India’s Annual Deaths, Harvard Study Finds

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Feb 11, 2021

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More than 30% of deaths in India in 2018 can be attributed to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, a new study has found.

The study found that the highest fatalities due to air pollution from fossil fuels like coal and diesel were from China and India. And within India, Uttar Pradesh suffered the highest number of deaths due to air pollution from fossil fuels — costing over 4.7 lakh lives in 2018.

U.P.’s mortality rate was followed closely by Bihar and West Bengal, while Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu also witnessed over 1 lakh deaths due to fossil fuel-spawned air pollution.

“Burning fossil fuels produces fine particles laden with toxins that are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs. The risks of inhaling these particles…are well documented,” Eloise Marais, Ph.D., an associate professor of geography at the University College London, who was involved in the study, said in a statement to the press, adding that “we can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels,” knowing how hazardous they are human health.

Globally, too, an estimated 1 in 5 deaths each year can be attributed to fossil fuel pollution, which killed more than 8 million people in 2018. In fact, the study found that regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution around the world also had the highest mortality rates.


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Published in Environmental Research this week, the latest study was led by Harvard University, in collaboration with other institutions. In order to distinguish between particles from fossil fuel emissions, and those from dust, wildfire smoke, or other sources, the researchers developed a risk assessment model that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes. The model also revealed a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions — even at lower concentrations.

Past studies have linked air pollution to miscarriagesanemia, and even shortened lifespans — with India reporting the most infant deaths due to air pollution in the world in 2019. Subsequently, amid the global pandemic, air pollution has also been linked to higher Covid19 mortality rates. But while previous studies have focused on air pollution resulting from a wide range of factors, the present study focuses on the pollution caused by fossil fuels alone — and the numbers are still alarming.

Researchers note that while the dangers of fossil fuel-spawned air pollution in the environment are well-known, the impact on human health is not too well understood. “Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of carbon dioxide and climate change, which overlooks the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” Joel Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard University, who was involved in the study, told the media.

He believes 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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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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