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Air Pollution Science

What is Particulate Matter?

Picture of Dr. Yvonne Boose
By Dr. Yvonne Boose on March, 23 2022

In the world of air pollution and air quality, there is a lot of discussion about Particulate matter (PM) and its impact on the health of people all over the world.

But what exactly is PM pollution and how does it affect us?

What is Particulate Matter: Let’s Define It

Unlike some of the other major air pollutants that affect our health, such as ground-level ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter is the only example that isn’t a gas. Rather, particulate matter is microscopic solid or liquid-state particles floating in the air around us.

PM pollution can consist of a number of different materials and compounds. It could be entirely mineral, but it could also include dissolved gasses or black carbon.

Where does Particulate Matter Come From?

Particulate matter can be released into the atmosphere through emission from direct sources (‘primary particles’), or it can form in the atmosphere via chemical reactions of gasses (‘secondary particles’). The sources of these gasses and particles can be natural or man-made.

PM10 is generated primarily from sources such as natural (mineral) and road dust, sea spray, and pollen, while PM2.5 comes from fuel burning, smoke, industrial processes, transportation, and indoor heating. (We’ll explain what each of these PM pollutants is in a moment.)

Secondary particles formed in the air, such as those from nitrogen oxides emitted by traffic or industrial processes, are also a part of PM2.5 pollution.

Particulate Matter is Not ‘One’ Pollutant.

When people refer to ‘Particulate Matter’ (or 'PM') pollution it often sounds like they’re referring to just one pollutant. However, particulate matter is not a unified pollutant at all. We use this term to refer to a family of particles suspended in the air and characterized by their varying sizes. 

What’s The Difference Between PM10 and PM2.5?

PM10, also called coarse particulate matter, and PM2.5, otherwise referred to as fine particulate matter, are both different types of particulate matter pollution, categorized according to their size and relative impact on our health: PM10 is any particle that has a diameter of 10 microns or less, while PM2.5 refers to particles that have a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. As a result, PM2.5 also comprises a part of PM10.

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See BreezoMeter's PM2.5 Heatmaps

Particulate Matter’s Link to Different Diseases

PM10 particles are inhalable and can get into our lungs, causing local and systemic inflammation in the respiratory system. In turn, this can cause respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. 

PM2.5 particles, similarly, are also inhalable, and because of their even smaller size, they can get even farther into our bodies. PM2.5 pollution can enter and deposit into deep corners of our lungs, the alveoli, and some of it can also pass into the bloodstream. Once they enter the bloodstream, the tiny particles may affect the heart, causing cardiovascular diseases or entering organs beyond the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, posing a range of long and short-term health threats. 

Long-term exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to a number of forms of cancer. Studies have also found that long-term exposure to Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) can increase the likelihood of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Sand Storms & Dusty Cabinets - Is It All the Same Pollution?

In a way, yes. They’re all examples of particulate matter --‘Dust’ is often used as an interchangeable term for ‘respirable particles’. 

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However, when we talk about dust in terms of our households, this is usually a mixture of inorganic and organic material which people can also be allergic to thanks to the presence of dust mites. For example, your household dust could consist of hair, dead skin, pollen, pet dander, and more.

When we talk about ‘dust’ in atmospheric science, we’re usually referring to mineral dust, which is material that gets transported through the air from deserts or soil. Dust can also carry bacteria on its surface or become coated with other materials. 

This reality is another reason why people get sick during extreme dust storm events - of course, this dust can also penetrate our lungs which is extremely unhealthy.

Is Pollen a Type of Particulate Matter Too?

The average size of pollen is around 25 microns. However, pollen grains can sometimes rupture or burst into smaller fragments. When that happens, the smaller fragments can become small enough to fall into the category of PM10 or PM2.5 and result in the same potential health implications.

The Big Question: How Can We Reduce Exposure to Particulate Matter?

First of all, it's very difficult to combat a problem we aren’t aware of. The best available method for managing exposure to harmful particulate matter is by knowing what’s in the air we are breathing!

Checking the Air Quality Regularly

For individuals, this means using reliable sources of air quality information to avoid unhealthy air - whether by app, website, connected device, or other. However, you should check that whatever source you're using reports on all the important pollutants, and provides hourly and location-specific information.

Smarter Air Purifiers

There is a very strong correlation between indoor and outdoor air quality, which means on a dusty, hazy, or highly polluted day, there’s no guarantee the PM will stay outside. 

For this reason, we recommend using an air purification system that integrates live outdoor and indoor air quality information. This will help you understand the environmental conditions both inside and outside of your home, and when you need to take action.

How Can Companies Help Control Exposure to Particulate Matter?

As one of the six common outdoor pollutants, particulate matter presents a major health hazard to people all over the world and is a major contributor to one of the world’s leading risk factors for death. In 2021, the WHO even tightened its annual and daily limits for PM2.5 and PM10.

Companies looking to meet growing consumer demands for health who want to stay competitive in their respective markets can leverage real-time location-based air pollution monitoring. Using personalized air quality insights and forecasts on PM and all common ambient pollutants, companies can engage users, inform decision-making, and promote healthier lifestyle choices. 

Explore our particulate matter heatmaps here.

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