Particulate matter and your health

Particulate matter and your health

As the Dutch government decided to move away from natural fossilized energy sources, we are moving towards solar and wind energy.
Because solar and wind energy cannot provide all energy and a decision to also move away from natural gas, biomass plants seemed to be the perfect solution.

Biomass is plant or animal material used for energy production (electricity or heat). It can be purposely grown energy crops, wood or forest residues, waste from food crops (wheat straw), horticulture (yard waste), food processing (corn cobs), animal farming (manure, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus), or human waste from sewage plants.

Burning plant-derived biomass releases CO2, but it has still been classified as a renewable energy source in the EU and UN legal frameworks because photosynthesis cycles the CO2 back into new crops. In some cases, this recycling of CO2 from plants to atmosphere and back into plants can even be CO2 negative, as a relatively large portion of the CO2 is moved to the soil during each cycle.

However, over the past few months it has become clear how a lot of biomass comes from trees, that were previously pristine forests in the USA or the Baltics.
While in the best case, the use of biomass could even be CO2 negative, burning biomass will result in excessive CO2 output locally as well as of particulate matter.
This is why almost overnight, due to negative public opinion, politicians changed their mind. Too late though, there are already few hundred biomass plants that are being constructed due to substantial subsidies that were handed out, so we can expect a substantial worsening of air quality in the upcoming decade(s) because of the increased amount of particulate matter.

What is Particulate Matter

Particulate matter seems easier to understand than other air pollutants. It’s just dust and other particles floating in the air, right? However, particulate matter is far more nuanced than it seems, with complex environmental and health impacts that we all need to be aware of.

What exactly is particulate matter? Where does particulate matter come from? And, importantly, how do we protect ourselves from particulate matter?

Particulate matter is an amalgamation of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. 
Most particulate matter (abbreviated ‘PM’) is microscopic and inhalable. Some examples are:
  • mould spores
  • dust
  • smoke
  • pollen
  • soot
  • dirt
Particulate matter can include organic matter, like dander and spores, and inorganic matter, like dust. While other pollutants are identified through chemical makeup, PM is an umbrella term for all airborne particles, regardless of molecular composition. Scientists and researchers use size to categorize PM, as different sizes of particulate matter prompt different physiological reactions.

What’s the difference between PM10 and PM2.5?

When discussing particulate matter, the two subcategories you’ve likely heard of before are PM10 and PM2.5.
You may be wondering: what exactly is the difference between these PM2.5 and PM10? Are they completely different pollutants?

To answer these questions, the main difference between PM2.5 and PM10 is size. When discussing particulate matter, the number to the right of the ‘PM’ indicates the diameter of the particles. So, PM10 refers to particles smaller than 10 micrometer, and PM2.5 refers to particles smaller than 2.5 micrometer. You may also hear PM10 called coarse dust and PM2.5 called fine dust. 

PM10 and PM2.5 are both forms of particulate matter, but the size difference comes into play when discussing the health effects of particle pollution exposure.

How does particulate matter impact our health?

Particulate matter is a significant health concern as it's an air pollutant. To discuss the full wellness implications of particulate matter, we need to split up PM10 and PM2.5.

PM10 health effects
Despite being larger of the two PM categories, PM10 is still quite small (less than one-tenth the width of a human hair!). As you inhale these particles, PM10 can irritate your nose and throat tissue, triggering allergic reactions. Once these particles get into your lungs, PM10 further irritates the lung tissue and can prompt asthma attacks. Additional conditions include:

- Stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attack
- Increased risk of lung cancer
- Reduced lung development
- Bronchitis
- Premature death

PM2.5 health effects
PM2.5 poses even more danger to your health. One of the reasons scientists study PM2.5 separately from PM10 (even though PM2.5 is technically counted as PM10) is because of a special property of PM2.5. Unlike PM10, PM2.5 can not only enter your lungs but also permeate your bloodstream. PM10 particles are too large to do this, and PM2.5 can flow to other parts of your body like your brain.

As PM2.5 enters different organs in your body, it causes inflammation and damage. For this reason, PM2.5 contributes to the same conditions as PM10 and additional ones like:

  • respiratory disease
  • reduced immune response
  • congenital disabilities
  • diabetes
  • reduced brain white matter

PM0.1 (Ultrafine dust)
PM0.1 is much less frequently talked about, as there is little available data. PM0.1, or ultrafine dust, is believed to have even more significant health impacts than PM2.5 and PM10. However, scientists still aren’t clear about the health implications of these particles.

Relation particulate matter with COVID-19

Many of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death in those with COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution.
On data that has been collected on COVID-19 death rates vs. local air quality, it appears that an increase of only 1 microgram/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.
This underscores the importance of enforcing existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Where does particulate matter come from?

With all this discussion of serious health effects, it can be easy to fall into defeatist thinking. After all, how can you avoid toxins in the very air you breathe? Luckily, there are some tips and tech that will help you reduce your exposure to particulate matter and make smarter, healthier choices. First, we need to talk about the sources of particulate matter so you can more effectively avoid this air pollutant.

When we think of air pollution, we usually think of industrial sources like factories and power plants. While these are sources of particulate matter, there are many more places where particulate matter can form. In general, particulate matter is created from primary or secondary sources.

Primary sources of particulate matter

As the name implies, primary sources of particulate matter directly emit PM into the air. Some examples of these sources are:

  • construction sites
  • mining activities
  • paving
  • unpaved road dust
  • natural dust
  • vehicle emissions
  • wildfires
  • slash-and-burn agriculture
  • other fuel-burning activities

While these are all examples of outdoor PM pollution, oftentimes particulate matter levels can be higher inside our homes.
Wood-burning and coal-burning stoves are both heavy emitters of PM2.5, and without sufficient ventilation, these particles get trapped in our homes.
Pet dander and mould spores are both forms of particulate matter, and both come from inside our homes.

Secondary sources of particulate matter

Much like ozone, particulate matter can also be created by other pollutants in the atmosphere. Chemical reactions of gases like ammonia, volatile organic compounds, sulphur oxides, and nitrogen oxides can produce airborne particulates. Much of the PM2.5 pollution we experience is created by secondary sources, which makes reducing all forms of air pollution of paramount concern.

How to protect yourself from particulate matter

One of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from air pollution is to check your local air quality readings.
Particulate matter is one of the key pollutants monitored by environmental organizations, and PM readings from these monitoring stations are factored into an overall air quality index (AQI).

Here are 2 links to European maps showing air quality for your country :
Air Pollution in Europe: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map 
European Air Quality Index

When pollution levels are high, you should keep your doors and windows closed and avoid going outside. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions are especially susceptible to particulate matter and should avoid going out even when pollution is less severe (AQI 101-150).

Skip your morning jog
Exercise is a great way to get in shape and stay healthy, but exercising on polluted days can do more harm than good. During exercise, our breathing rate increases, and we take deeper breaths, creating an opportunity for pollution to penetrate further into our lungs. The longer we’re out there working up a sweat, the more damage particulate matter can do to our health.


On polluted days, work out indoors with an air purifier or reducing the intensity of your workout and wearing a mask. Checking your AQI readings before exercising outdoors is crucial, and you definitely shouldn’t exercise outdoors, even with a mask, when pollution levels are hazardous (>300).

Wear a pollution mask
If you do have to go out on a polluted day, be sure to wear a pollution mask. Fitted over the face like a doctor’s mask, pollution masks help filter out most of the particulate matter from the air you’re breathing.

Pollution masks aren’t 100% effective, as the seal against your face isn’t airtight. Still, pollution masks will significantly cut the amount of particle pollution you’re inhaling and minimize the damage caused by particulate matter.

Eat nutritiously
Eating an apple a day won’t keep the pollution away, but eating specific nutrients will disrupt oxidative stress on the body caused by PM2.5 inhalation. Antioxidant supplements and antioxidant-rich foods like berries, nuts, green veggies, and fish oils are our go-to superfoods for preventing oxidative stress and reducing the impact of particulate matter on our bodies.

A word of caution, however; eating berries and fish oil supplements aren’t going to reverse all medical effects of particulate matter. We need to be sure to combine this dietary change with preventative measures like air purifiers and pollution masks to fully protect ourselves.

Pick up an air purifier
Even if you avoid outdoor particle pollution, some particulate matter will inevitably seep into your home. In this case, an air purifier will do the trick.
By filtering particles out of your air, air purifiers reduce the amount of particulate matter your breathing while indoors.

Invest in an air quality monitor
For personalized air quality data, an air quality monitor is a great option. Even within one city, air quality can vary greatly, so having a personal air quality monitor can provide the most relevant data about the air quality status in and around your home.
Air quality monitors can also go beyond particulate matter, measuring TVOC, CO₂, humidity, and more.

Conclusion

Particulate matter is a major air pollutant that poses significant health threats. Luckily, you can protect yourself against it

  1. Check out your local air quality readings
  2. Avoid outdoor exercise on polluted days
  3. Put on a pollution mask
  4. Eat foods rich in antioxidants
  5. Purchase an air purifier
  6. Use an air quality monitor
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