The majority of air pollution is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels — either for generating power or for powering transport — which result in emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals, toxic organic micro-pollutants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Industrial and agricultural processes can also cause air pollution, as can domestic activities, such as heating homes.

Four pollutants recognised to cause the most damage to human health are particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone. Evidence shows that air pollution is responsible for millions of premature deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that every year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In 2016, 4.2 million people died prematurely from exposure to PM2.5 — a small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter — which causes cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and cancer. According to the WHO in 2019, more than 90% of the global population lived in areas where concentrations exceeded the 2005 WHO air quality guideline for long-term exposure to PM2.5. There is also increasing evidence that air pollution can be linked to other illnesses, including some types of diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and dementia.


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