Burning coal spews carbon into the atmosphere, and it produces air pollution that’s dangerous to breathe.

“As coal use declined in the last decade or so, there’s been a big drop in the health impacts of emissions from coal-fired power plants and from coal use in industry. So that’s no surprise,” says Jonathan Buonocore of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But he says coal is not the only energy source that has serious health impacts. Burning natural gas, biomass, wood, and oil also releases harmful air pollution.

His team used models to estimate how many premature deaths are associated with burning each type of fuel at power plants, industrial facilities, businesses, and homes.

The researchers found that deaths related to coal dropped dramatically over the past decade, but pollution from these other fuels still contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year.

So burning less coal is beneficial, but Buonocore says that to improve health, people need to eliminate use of combustion fuels. And that requires switching to sources of energy such as solar, wind, or geothermal that are not harmful for the climate or people’s lungs.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media