Air Pollution: Particulate Matter And Your Health

Photo Courtesy of How Stuff Works

Particulate matter: any small, usually impossible to see, mass of solid or liquid that remains individually dispersed in air that is usually considered an atmospheric pollutant. (Thanks to our friends over at Princeton for the base of our definition). At any time, you can be surrounded by millions of these little particles. They include pollen, dander, dust, chemicals, and a whole host of other things. But what does this mean for your health?

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Sizes and  Sources of Particulate Matter

Particulate matter comes in variety of sizes – coarse, fine, ultrafine – and from a variety of sources. These different sizes affect the aerodynamic properties of each particle, meaning it affects how they travel through the air and how they are removed from it. More importantly, the size also helps dictate how each particulate enters our respiratory system.

Coarse particles are largely the result of a “mechanical break-up” of larger particles – think combustion of engines, fires, dust, pollen, and plant and insect parts. Fine particles, on the other hand, are attributed more to the formation of gases, but also can come from mobile sources. Finally, ultrafine particulate matter are formed by “nucleation”, or the first step in a gas becoming a liquid.

The Dangers of Particulate Matter

The dangers of these particles are real. Not only do some particulate matter contribute to allergies and other low-level respiratory problems, but they also contribute to a reduction in life expectancy by helping facilitate and promote the risk of cardio-pulmonary and lung cancer ailments. For example, fine particles are especially worrisome because they can reach the deepest regions of the lungs, according to the EPA. This usually results in “Health effects includ[ing] asthma, difficult or painful breathing, and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly.”

In many cases, this is more often seen in long-term exposure to particulate matter. However, even relatively short exposure can have adverse health effects. In a number of cohort studies, researchers have found that both short and long-term exposure to particulate matter has led to poorer respiratory health, as well as the difficulty both impose of resolving previous exposure.

Because of this, the World Health Organization has argued that “ambient [outdoor air] particulate matter per se is considered responsible for the health effects seen in the large multi-city epidemiological studies relating ambient PM to mortality and morbidity… In the Six Cities and ACS [American Cancer Society] cohort studies, PM but not gaseous pollutants with the exception of sulfur dioxide was associated with mortality. That ambient PM is responsible per se for effects on health is substantiated by controlled human exposure studies, and to some extent by experimental findings in animals.”

In other words, outdoor air pollution can have a serious effect on our health. Unsurprisingly, indoor air pollution can be just as threatening. The WHO stresses the major complications cooking and heating with solid fuels or open fires can facilitate, mainly citing that “indoor air pollution is responsible for 2.7% of the global burden of disease.”

The EPA stresses the importance of awareness concerning radon, a radioactive gas that is emitted through the ground and creeps indoors through cracks, second hand smoke, combustion pollutants, molds, and volatile organic compounds like those found in paint thinners and cleaning supplies, and other asthma triggers such as dander and dust mites.

How to Avoid the Bad

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous nature of particulate matter and air pollution, you can still take measures to protect yourself and your family. Here are a few strategies to consider:


  • Undergo regular testing for chemicals such as radon
  • Do not smoke indoors
  • Have indoor plants and/or an indoor garden
  • Keep your bathrooms and other areas exposed to water clean
  • Use all natural cleaners in place of harmful chemical ones
  • Install a carbon monoxide alarm
  • Ventilate while cleaning your home
  • Consider buying a HEPA air filter for your home
  • Change your filters regularly
  • Raise awareness around your house!


I’d like to thank for their excellent and informative article on Air Pollution – Particulate Matter, as well as the EPA for additional resources.


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