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What is Particulate Matter?

Julie Ach
What is particulate matter

In the world of air pollution and air quality, there is a lot of discussion about particulate matter, air pollutants, the sources of various things in the air, and their impact on our health. But let’s just pick one air pollutant to dig a little deeper into: Particulate Matter.

What is Particulate Matter?

It’s actually a bit ironic to say that we’re picking one pollutant when referring to particulate matter, because really it’s not a unified pollutant at all.

Particulate matter is a family of particles characterized by their size that is suspended in the air. It can be composed of many different materials and compounds. PM can be entirely mineral, but can also have dissolved gases or black carbon in it. Particles with diameters less than 10 microns, are inhalable, and thus can have negative health effects.

If the major air pollutants that affect our health are ground level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (PM), what sets PM apart? It is the only one on this list that is not a gas, rather it is a solid- or liquid-state pollutant. Not only that, PM can be composed of many different materials and compounds. It can be entirely mineral, but it can also have dissolved gases, or black carbon in it. The composition of the PM changes its health effects. These particles are categorized according to their size. PM10, for example, is any particle that has a diameter of 10 microns or less, and PM2.5 (which can also be considered a subset of PM10) has a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.

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Health Effects of Particulate Matter

The particles encompassed by this family of are very similar in terms of their sources and the effects they have on our bodies and health, but their size does have slightly different consequences. The larger PM10 is inhalable and can get into our lungs, causing local and systemic inflammation in the respiratory system & heart, that in turn can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. PM2.5, similarly, is inhalable, and because of its even smaller size, can get farther into our bodies, not just into the lungs, but can pass into the bloodstream as well, and be carried to organs of various systems, beyond the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, posing threats to health.

Sources of Particulate Matter

Particulate matter in the air is mainly from sources such as natural dust, smoke and pollen, when considering the larger PM10, and fuel burning, industrial processes, transportation, and indoor heating when discussing PM2.5.

So is dust particulate matter? Yes, it is, but it’s size range is much larger than only below 10 microns. In other words, the dust that gets categorized as PM pollution (as in that which is 10 microns or smaller)  is only part of the “dust phenomenon.” Even though dust is generally just considered a nuisance, especially to those who are allergic to the dust mites that reside in it, it actually can also have real health implications. Pollen spores and pet dander can also be part of the dust we have in our homes, and those people with allergies can then suffer two-fold. Pollen spores do not tend to fall into the category of PM10 or PM2.5,as they are usually many times larger. However there are some pollen types that are smaller than PM10.

What Can We Do About Particulate Matter and Pollution?

One of the most important ways to confront issues of air pollution is to first be aware of what is in the air you are breathing. It is very difficult to combat a problem that you aren’t aware of. Oftentimes, particulate matter is visible when it gets to high enough concentrations, but what about in our homes? We don’t see the same haze in our living rooms that we might see when looking outside into the distance.

Since there is a very strong correlation between indoor and outdoor air quality, even when you are inside on a dusty, hazy, polluted day, it doesn’t mean that the dust and PM stays outside. In fact, it can come inside, where there is less circulation, and therefore present at higher concentrations. Furthermore, there are additional indoor sources of particulate matter, including byproducts of cooking, cleaning sprays, fireplaces and chimneys, and tobacco smoke. Using an air purification system that integrates outdoor air quality data can help consumers be aware of when they should be activating their devices based on outdoor and indoor conditions.

Air purifiers that incorporate outdoor air quality data can help inform users what the situation is outside, and when it is best to close up the windows and activate the devices, and when it is reasonable to open up the space and ventilate.

Particulate matter is one group of many pollutants in the air, and understanding its sources and health effects can help people reduce their exposure to it, thus improving their health outcomes.

Are you ready to start a conversation about air quality data integration, so that your consumers understand the value of your devices and use them properly, let’s get in touch.

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Julie Ach earned her MBA specializing in sustainability and environmental science from the University of Haifa, and writes educational content for BreezoMeter, in hopes of helping people improve their health through knowledge.

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