Although some consensus has emerged among the scientific and regulatory communities that the urban ambient atmospheric mix of combustion related pollutants is a determinant of population health, the relative toxicity of the chemical and physical components of this complex mixture remains unclear. Daily mortality rates and concurrent data on size-fractionated particulate mass and gaseous pollutants were obtained in eight of Canada's largest cities from 1986 to 1996 inclusive in order to examine the relative toxicity of the components of the mixture of ambient air pollutants to which Canadians are exposed. Positive and statistically significant associations were observed between daily variations in both gas- and particulate-phase pollution and daily fluctuations in mortality rates. The association between air pollution and mortality could not be explained by temporal variation in either mortality rates or weather factors. Fine particulate mass (less than 2.5 microns in average aerometric diameter) was a stronger predictor of mortality than coarse mass (between 2.5 and 10 microns). Size-fractionated particulate mass explained 28% of the total health effect of the mixture, with the remaining effects accounted for by the gases. Forty-seven elemental concentrations were obtained for the fine and coarse fraction using nondestructive x-ray fluorescence techniques. Sulfate concentrations were obtained by ion chromatography. Sulfate ion, iron, nickel, and zinc from the fine fraction were most strongly associated with mortality. The total effect of these four components was greater than that for fine mass alone, suggesting that the characteristics of the complex chemical mixture in the fine fraction may be a better predictor of mortality than mass alone. However, the variation in the effects of the constituents of the fine fraction between cities was greater than the variation in the mass effect, implying that there are additional toxic components of fine particulate matter not examined in this study whose concentrations and effects vary between locations. One of these components, carbon, represents half the mass of fine particulate matter. We recommend that measurements of elemental and organic carbon be undertaken in Canadian urban environments to examine their potential effects on human health.