What Are the Main Causes of Air Pollution?

Reviewed on 5/13/2021
air pollution
Air pollution can cause significant health problems

Air pollution not only causes environmental hazards but significant health problems as well. Long-term exposure to polluted air often result in respiratory illnesses such as asthma and bronchitis, and can sometimes lead to the development of cancer

While air pollution cannot always be seen, pungent-smelling chemicals (such as hydrogen sulfide or ammonia) may alert you to its presence. The main causes of air pollution can be categorized by source:

  1. Mobile: Cars, buses, planes, trucks and trains.
  2. Stationary: Power plants, oil refineries, industrial facilities and factories.
  3. Area: Agricultural areas, cities and wood-burning fireplaces.
  4. Natural: Wind-blown dust, wildfires and volcanoes.

Mobile sources

  • The global transport sector (automobiles) accounts for almost 25% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and this number is rising.

Stationary sources

  • Coal-burning power plants are a major contributor, whereas diesel generators are a growing concern in off-grid areas. 
  • Industrial processes and solvent usage in the chemical and mining industries also pollute the air.

Area sources

  • Two major sources of air pollution from agriculture are livestock (which produces methane and ammonia) and the burning of agricultural waste. Methane emissions contribute to ground-level ozone, which causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide.
  • Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane and black carbon into the atmosphere. The problem is most severe in urbanizing regions and developing countries.
  • Indoor burning of fossil fuels, wood and other biomass-based fuels to cook, heat and light homes is considered a cause of air pollution.
  • Second-hand cigarette smoke is also considered air pollution.

Natural sources

  • Volcanic eruptions, dust storms, smoke from wildlife fires and other natural phenomena also cause pollution.
  • Sand and dust storms are particularly concerning, since fine particles of dust can travel thousands of miles through these storms, carrying pathogens and harmful substances that cause respiratory problems.

Who is most affected by air pollution?

Studies show that people with lower socioeconomic status and minority populations are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and more vulnerable to adverse health effects. Populations who are at a higher risk of health problems due to air pollution are:

What can help reduce air pollution?

Depending on where you live, indoor air can be more harmful than outdoor air. For example, if the filters in your air conditioner aren’t changed regularly, air gets combined with dirt and other pollutants, which can lead to air pollution inside the house. Installing an air purifier can help. 

Pollutants are getting added to the air, as well as oceans and landmasses, faster than our planet can remove them through natural processes. Results can be seen in acid rain, smog and global warming. And the rise of several health problems can be directly attributed to exposure to these harmful pollutants. 

Sustainability and reduced carbon emission can help curb the ever-increasing air pollution that is detrimental to our health and quality of life. Other measures include:

  • Reducing consumption of resources
  • Recycling energy and available resources
  • Reusing where possible (energy sources, fashion, food, etc.)


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Ritchie H, Roser M. Air Pollution. 2017. OurWorldinData.org. https://ourworldindata.org/air-pollution

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Air Pollution and Your Health. National Institutes of Health. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution/index.cfm

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