By Ramona du Houx

May 5, 2021

Northern states burn substantial gas, biomass and wood to heat buildings. According to a new study, these fuel sources are causing premature deaths in Maine, and across America. New York is the hardest hit.

Burning gas, biomass and wood in buildings has more negative health effects than burning coal in many states, says a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Research Letters, is the first to examine the effects of burning different fuels and quantify those impacts in terms of both early deaths and monetary cost in the United States.

This study fills an important gap in research by providing an inventory of outdoor health impacts from stationary sources such as power plants, buildings, industrial boilers, and other industries. While other studies have presented similar analyses, this is the first to break down and quantify premature deaths and health burdens explicitly by different fuel sources.

“Early deaths attributed to air pollution from stationary sources are between 48,000 and 64,000 a year,” reads the study. If this type of air pollution was considered a “cause of death,” it would rank as the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, just below diabetes and similar to influenza and pneumonia.

The study shows that inorder to improve health outcomes, we must take measures to end fuels in buildings. Swapping one polluting fuel source for another is not a pathway to a healthy energy system.

In 2008, coal plant emissions were the most harmful sources of PM2.5 air pollution, but by 2017, the total emissions from gas, biomass, and wood burned in industrial boilers and buildings surpassed the impact from coal plants.

“Taken together, commercial and residential buildings are now responsible for approximately 18,300 early deaths and $205 billion in health impacts—one-third of the health burden from stationary sources in the United States,” read the report. 

This conservative statistic only includes health impacts from one outdoor pollutant and does not account for emissions generated by fuel extraction or the potentially significant health impacts from indoor air pollution generated by burning fuels.

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