Particulate Matter Explained – Health Impacts & How It Is Measured

Dec 17, 2023 | Blog

Particulate matter (PM) represents one of the most widespread yet least understood air contaminants plaguing public health in urban areas. Ranging from construction dust to diesel exhaust, these inhalable particles elicit severe population-level damage contributing to strokes, lung cancer, disrupted development and more

Yet until recent years, particulate pollution failed to gain comparable notoriety and desired reductions to other hazardous emissions like nitrogen dioxide thanks to general unfamiliarity. Let’s demystify exactly what makes particle pollution so pernicious, which environments see the highest PM threats, and standard approaches for accurate monitoring enabling real progress.


Defining Particulate Matter

Particulate matter describes any airborne solid or liquid particles under regulatory oversight for their concerning respiratory and circulatory health risks. Based on aerodynamic size determining atmospheric duration and lung penetration, particles classify between coarse, fine and ultrafine fractions:

PM10Coarse particles with 2.5 to 10 micrometer diameters arising from crushing activities. 

PM2.5. – Fine particles measuring under 2.5 micrometers – mainly combustion sources like vehicles.

UFPs – Ultrafine particles below 0.1 micrometers posing emerging concerns needing research. 

While natural sources like sea spray and soil dust contribute background particle levels, human activity drives most PM – especially the smallest most hazardous fractions. Chemical make-up further influences harmfulness.  


Health Dangers by Size

With the smallest particles evading bodily defenses and lodging deep into our lungs, long term PM2.5 exposure imparts the steepest risks on respiratory, heart and nervous system function. DNA itself also sustains damage triggering cell mutations. Recently, air pollution joined smoking as a leading contributory risk factor in lung cancer thanks to fine particulates.

Yet developing children see some of the most devastating PM impacts through permanent lung damage and cognitive deficits. Overall, particulate matter cuts global life expectancy by 2 years on average while contributing to 19% of cardiovascular deaths.  


PM In the UK

The UK closely tracks both PM10 and PM2.5 to protect public health, with legal standards limiting allowable exposure. An annual mean PM10 concentration above 40μg/m3 raises concern alongside over 35 days annually exceeding 50μg/m3 in a 24-hour period. For the more hazardous PM2.5, authorities aim to curb annual exposure below 20μg/m3.

Trend analysis shows UK annual urban PM10 levels dropping over 30% since the 1990s thanks to pollution control policies. However, the smallest and most dangerous PM2.5 particles only declined around 15% over the past decade signalling work remains.

While transport from mainland Europe causes regional PM episodes, the government estimates UK-based sources including brake dust, tyre wear, and wood burning drive around half of exposures. This points to major localised traffic and household emission management opportunities.

With emerging PM2.5 goals targeting further population exposure cuts up to 35% by 2040, advanced monitoring technology and analytics will prove essential for source identification, tracking improvements, and navigating politically-charged community perceptions around progress.

As an award-winning air quality monitoring specialist, EMSOL is ready to partner with organisations to tangibly meet pressing particulate reduction imperatives. Let us tailor a solution matching your budget and objectives.

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