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Millions Die, Billions Lost in Productivity from Fossil Fuel Pollution

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An estimated 4.5 million people die prematurely each year due to health issues connected to the burning of fossil fuels, according to a Greenpeace report published Feb. 11.

This includes more than 200,000 people who die each year in the U.S. alone, as well as 40,000 children globally who die before the age of 5. The annual total represents an average of 12,000 deaths per day.

“Health impacts from air pollution generate economic costs from the cost of treatment, management of health conditions and from work absences,” the report explained.

Costs in lost productivity due to illness that is connected to fine particulate matter from fossil fuel burning are estimated to be $8 billion per day, which represents around 3% of the global gross domestic product.

These figures reflect the negative impact of nitrogen oxide (NO2), ozone and several forms of particulate matter, all of which are emitted from burning fossil fuels and have been proven to cause health and environmental problems.

While all three fossil fuel emissions can cause health issues, particulate matter is responsible for a wide range of illnesses and negative impacts – from pulmonary issues and heart disease to lung cancer and strokes.

Exposure to particulate matter accounts for 3 million of the total annual deaths due to health issues stemming from fossil fuel emissions, while ozone is responsible for 1 million and NO2 for 500,000.

Most of the world (91%) now lives in places where the particulate matter levels are high enough that the World Health Organization considers them a public health risk.

To help address these widespread health risks, the report emphasized the importance of lessening reliance on oil, coal and gas while increasing the use of renewable forms of energy.

The amount of energy produced by renewable sources (wind, solar and hydro / ocean) has increased in recent years, but the amount of energy produced by coal, oil and natural gas has largely remained stable.

Contributing to this trend is the fact that, even as renewable energy costs are declining, “oil and gas companies continue to push outdated technologies with the outcome that fossil fuels continue to dominate, creating air pollution when cleaner alternatives are readily available,” the report said.

Substantive change will require both macro changes like government action – for example, revising the primary sources from which electricity is produced and supplied – and micro corrections related to personal choices – for example, increasing the use of public transit, as well as biking or walking to certain destinations.

“The transition to renewable energy is essential both to prevent catastrophic climate change and to protect our health,” the report said. While fossil fuel companies continue to market outmoded technologies, our communities pay the price. A just transition to renewable energy is possible, but we can’t afford to delay any longer.”

The full report is available here.