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Eliminating fossil fuel air pollution would save about 50,000 lives, study finds

Traffic on a hazy evening in Fresno, Calif. A new study estimates that about 50,000 lives could be saved each year if the U.S. eliminated small particles of pollution that are released from the tailpipes of cars and trucks, among other sources.
Gary Kazanjian
/
AP
Traffic on a hazy evening in Fresno, Calif. A new study estimates that about 50,000 lives could be saved each year if the U.S. eliminated small particles of pollution that are released from the tailpipes of cars and trucks, among other sources.

Tens of thousands of lives would be saved every year in the United States if common air pollution from burning fossil fuels is eliminated, according to a new study. The research underscores the huge health benefits of moving away from coal, oil and gasoline.

Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimate that about 50,000 premature deaths would be avoided every year if microscopic air pollutants called particulates were eliminated in the U.S.

"These [particles] get deep into the lungs and cause both respiratory and cardiac ailments," says Jonathan Patz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the study. "They are pretty much the worst pollutant when it comes to mortality and hospitalization."

Premature death and hospitalization are also extremely expensive for the U.S. economy. The study estimates that eliminating such air pollution would save about $600 billion each year.

Burning fossil fuels are a main source of fine particulate pollution in the U.S. The new study is the latest reminder that climate change and public health are intimately related, and that cutting greenhouse gas emissions doesn't just reduce long-term risk from global warming; it can save lives immediately by cutting pollution.

Fine particulates, also known as PM2.5 by scientists and regulators, are pollutants generated by the burning of fossil fuels, wildfires, and some industrial processes. They are about 1/30th the width of human hair, which means they can lodge themselves deep inside the lungs.

Worldwide, millions of people are estimated to die prematurely every year because of outdoor air pollution, the World Health Organization estimates. More than 1 million global deaths from fine particulate air pollution could be avoided in just one year if fossil fuel combustion were eliminated, according to a separate study published last year.

Air quality in much of the U.S is better than the global average. But the remaining pollution is still deadly, especially to those living in hotspots next to factories, power plants and highways. That includes a disproportionate number of neighborhoods that were shaped by government-sponsored housing discrimination.

"Even with the Clean Air Act in the United States, we still have more than 100,000 Americans who die prematurely from air pollution each year," says Patz, who has studied the connections between climate change and human health for decades. "It's a significant health hazard."

Not all fuels are equally dangerous. For example, coal releases extremely intense pollution. But the U.S. is burning a lot less coal than it did even a decade ago. That has helped the electricity sector get a little bit cleaner, although the study still attributes about 9,000 premature deaths each year to pollution from power plants. Cars, trucks and other vehicles that run on fossil fuels account for about 11,000 premature deaths, the study finds.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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