Air pollution, particularly from fossil fuels, poses a severe threat to public health, leading to a staggering 2.18 million deaths annually in India, making it the second-highest contributor globally after China. A recent study published in The BMJ sheds light on the alarming statistics, revealing that fossil fuel-related air pollution is responsible for 5.1 million additional deaths worldwide each year. This accounts for a substantial 61% of the estimated 8.3 million deaths attributed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution in 2019. The study emphasizes the urgent need to replace fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources to mitigate these devastating health impacts.
The research, conducted by a team including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, utilized a novel model to estimate the total and cause-specific deaths resulting from fossil fuel-related air pollution. The study also explored potential health benefits associated with policies promoting the transition to clean energy. The findings indicate that the impact of fossil fuel-related deaths is more significant than previously believed, highlighting the potential life-saving benefits of phasing out fossil fuels.
To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers assessed excess deaths using data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 study, NASA satellite-based fine particulate matter, population data, and atmospheric chemistry models. Four scenarios were considered: the complete phase-out of all fossil fuel-related emission sources, and partial reductions of 25%, 50%, and the removal of all human-induced sources of air pollution, leaving only natural sources like desert dust and wildfires.
In 2019, a staggering 8.3 million deaths globally were attributed to fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) in ambient air, with fossil fuels accounting for a substantial 5.1 million deaths. This translates to 82% of the maximum number of air pollution deaths that could be avoided by controlling all human-induced emissions. The regions most affected by attributable deaths from all sources of ambient air pollution were South and East Asia, with China leading at 2.44 million deaths per year, followed closely by India at 2.18 million deaths per year.
The researchers discovered that more than half (52%) of these deaths were related to common health conditions such as ischemic heart disease (30%), stroke (16%), chronic obstructive lung disease (16%), and diabetes (6%). Approximately 20% of deaths remained undefined but were likely linked to high blood pressure and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Shuchin Bajaj, a Consultant in Internal Medicine at Ujala Cygnus Group of Hospitals in New Delhi, expressed concern about the critical public health issue of air pollution in India. He highlighted the severe risks posed by pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular complications. Dr. Bajaj emphasized the heightened vulnerability of children and the elderly to prolonged exposure to these pollutants, leading to increased mortality rates.
The potential health benefits of phasing out fossil fuels were underscored by the researchers, who estimated that such measures could prevent about 3.85 million deaths annually in South, Southeast, and East Asia. This represents 80-85% of the potentially preventable deaths from all anthropogenic sources of ambient air pollution in these regions. In high-income countries heavily dependent on fossil energy, an annual prevention of approximately 0.46 million deaths could be achieved, constituting about 90% of the potentially preventable deaths from all anthropogenic sources of ambient air pollution.
As the global community engages in the COP28 climate change negotiations, the researchers advocate for a substantial focus on phasing out fossil fuels. They emphasize the high health benefits associated with such measures and stress the need for prioritizing health considerations in policy decisions.
Dr. Girdhar Gyani, Founder Director of the Association of Healthcare Providers (AHPI), echoed the concerns raised by the study, emphasizing the severe health risks and premature deaths associated with toxic pollutants in the air. Dr. Gyani recommended caution among the general population, advising the use of protective measures such as wearing masks and opting for public transport to reduce personal exposure to toxins.
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