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 reports that 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. 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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