A CIESE Realtime Data Project

Paticulate Matter Primer

What is Particle Pollution (Particulate Matter)? Where Do Particulates Come From?
What are the health effects of particulate matter? Who is Most At Risk?
Other Problems Caused by Particulates? How can you avoid unhealthy exposure?

Educators and learners can use this curriculum to acquire the knowledge and skills to understand particle pollution (particulate matter).  Many people have roles in dealing with particulate matter including scientists that conduct research to understand particulates and their health effects, Government agencies that monitor particulates and enforce control regulations, and educate citizens who need to understand particulates and their impacts on human health.  This primer provides the necessary background information about particulate matter and its potential health effects to successfully implement the curriculum.

What is particle pollution (particulate matter, PM)?  (back to top)
Particle pollution (particulate matter, PM) is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets.  Particles can be suspended in the air for long periods of time.  Some particles are large or dark enough to be seen as soot or smoke.  Others are so small that individually they can only be detected with an electron microscope.

Many manmade and natural sources emit particles directly or emit other pollutants that react in the atmosphere to form particulates. These solid and liquid particles come in a wide range of sizes. Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as "fine" particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

Where do particulates come from?  (back to top)
Particle pollution is a year round problem in many areas of the country. Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion activities (motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning, etc.) and certain industrial processes. Particles with diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers are referred to as "coarse." Sources of coarse particles include crushing or grinding operations, and dust from paved or unpaved roads. Other particles may be formed in the air from the chemical change of gases. They are indirectly formed when gases from burning fuels react with sunlight and water vapor. These can result from fuel combustion in motor vehicles, at power plants, and in other industrial processes.

What are the health effects of particulate matter? (back to top)
Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature death. Other important effects include aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease (as indicated by increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, absences from school or work, and restricted activity days), lung disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks, and certain cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and irregular heart beat. Individuals particularly sensitive to fine particle exposure include older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and children.

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the lungs and bloodstream. Particles that are 10 micrometers (µm) or larger tend to be captured in the nose or in the tracheal and bronchial regions of the respiratory tract. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as "fine" particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs.

The deposits of particles in the lungs is not only influenced by particle size but also by concentration, composition, pH, and solubility. Deposits will also vary among nonsmokers, smokers and individuals with lung disease. Lung deposition is slightly higher in smokers and greatly increased in individuals with lung disease.

Who is most at risk? (back to top)
Roughly one out of every three people in the United States is at a higher risk of experiencing PM2.5 related health effects. One group at high risk is active children because they often spend a lot of time playing outdoors and their bodies are still developing. In addition, oftentimes the elderly population are at an increased risk. People of all ages who are active outdoors are at increased risk because, during physical activity, PM-2.5 penetrates deeper into the parts of the lungs that are more vulnerable to injury.

It appears that risk varies throughout a lifetime, generally being higher in early childhood, lower in healthy adolescents and younger adults, and increasing in middle age through old age as the incidence of heart and lung disease and diabetes increases. Factors that increase your risk of heart attack, such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels, also may increase your risk from particles. In addition, scientists are evaluating new studies that suggest that exposure to high particle levels may also be associated with low birth weight in infants, pre-term deliveries, and possibly fetal and infant deaths.

Other Problems Caused by Particulates?  (back to top)
Reduced Visibility
In our nation's scenic areas, the visual range has been substantially reduced by air pollution. In eastern parks, average visual range has decreased from 90 miles to 15-25 miles. In the West, visual range has decreased from 140 miles to 35-90 miles.

Haze is caused when sunlight encounters tiny pollution particles in the air. Some light is absorbed by particles. Other light is scattered away before it reaches an observer. More pollutants mean more absorption and scattering of light, which reduce the clarity and color of what we see. Some types of particles such as sulfates, scatter more light, particularly during humid conditions.

Surface temperature inversions play a major role in air quality, especially during the winter when these inversions are the strongest. A warm air layer above a cooler air layer acts like a lid, suppressing vertical mixing and trapping the cooler air at the surface. As pollutants from vehicles, fireplaces, and industry are emitted into the air, the inversion traps these pollutants near the ground, leading to poor air quality. The strength and duration of the inversion will control AQI levels near the ground. A strong inversion will confine pollutants to a shallow vertical layer, leading to high AQI levels, while a weak inversion will lead to lower AQI levels. A large contributor to poor air quality during the winter is residential wood burning. Wood smoke contains much higher amounts of particulate pollution than smoke from oil- or gas-fired furnaces. In some areas of the country, local governments issue burn bans to curtail the use of wood stoves and fireplaces under certain weather and pollution conditions during the winter.

How can you avoid unhealthy exposure?
Your chances of being affected by particles increase the more strenuous your activity and the longer you are active outdoors. If your activity involves prolonged or heavy exertion, reduce your activity time or substitute another that involves less exertion. Go for a walk instead of a jog, for example. Plan outdoor activities for days when particle levels are lower. And don't exercise near busy roads; particle levels generally are higher in these areas.

Particle levels can be elevated indoors, especially when outdoor particle levels are high. Certain filters and room air cleaners can help reduce indoor particle levels. You also can reduce particle levels indoors by not smoking inside, and by reducing your use of other particle sources such as candles, wood-burning stoves, and fireplaces. 

EPA | NESCAUM | CIESE | Stevens Institute of Technology