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Everything You Need to Know About Particulate Matter

Do you understand the dangers of particle pollution? Learn how to protect yourself and your family from exposure.

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particulate matter

Particulate matter, or PM for short, is a combination of both solid particles and liquid droplets that permeate the air. In fact, particle pollution is the sum of all suspended air particles. They vary in size and composition, many of which are considered hazardous. Particulate matter can contain organic chemicals, allergens, sulfates, nitrates, soil and dust among other air pollutants. The smaller the particle size, the deeper it can enter our lungs and therefore, the greater the health risk.

What Is PM10 and PM2.5?

Particle pollution is classified into three different categories according to size: coarse, fine and ultrafine.

  • PM10 refers to particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, including PM 2.5. Particles between 2.5 to 10 micrometers are considered coarse. PM10 particles irritate the eyes, nose and throat. They can enter the body and travel to the lungs, causing a variety of health issues.
  • PM2.5 refers to particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less and are considered fine. These particles can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing severe illness and death.
  • PM0.1 refers to particles with a diameter of 0.1 micrometers or less. These are the ultrafine particles. They share similar sources to PM2.5. There is less research available on PM0.1 compared to its counterparts, however available studies do convey the significant health threat that ultrafine particles present.

Because the size of the particle matters, most particulate matter references specify size. For this reason, you’ll more often see particle pollution simply described as PM10 or PM2.5. And, if someone refers simply to particulate matter, they are likely referring to PM2.5 as it is the most well-known and most often discussed.

Particle Pollution

Particle pollution is simply another way of referring to particulate matter. Part of the difficulty in minimizing PM exposure is that there are numerous sources, and particle pollution is both an outdoor and indoor air pollutant.

There are primary and secondary sources that contribute to particle pollution. Primary sources include fireplaces, wood stoves and wildfires. It’s also simple uncontrollable forces that pick up and spread dust such as wind or construction activities. Secondary sources include automobiles, power plants and factories. The difference between the two: primary sources produce particles, secondary sources produce gases that combine or react chemically and form particles.

How Does Particulate Matter Affect Health?

Exposure to particulate matter, whether short-term (hours or days) or long-term (years) both negatively impact human health. In fact, “there is currently no evidence of a threshold below which exposure to particulate matter does not cause any health effects.”

Symptoms of short-term particulate matter exposure include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Exacerbated asthma symptoms and lung disease
  • Heart attacks and arrhythmias (specific to individuals with heart disease)
  • Premature death

Symptoms of long-term exposure to particulate matter include:

  • Respiratory or cardiovascular disease
  • Rapid disease progression
  • Decreased lung function
  • Premature death

Who Is Most At Risk?

Everyone is at risk from particulate matter exposure. Unfortunately, there are certain populations that are considered more at risk, often because they are more vulnerable to exposure. According to the American Lung Association, populations with increased health risk include:

  • Infants, children and teens
  • Those with asthma or lung disease
  • Those with cardiovascular disease
  • Current and former smokers
  • Those who are obese
  • People of color
  • People with low incomes

Particle Pollution and Indoor Air Quality

PM undeniably impacts indoor air quality. Those living in a home where particle pollution roams unchecked are subject to the aforementioned health effects, particularly if they are part of an at-risk population. Thus, it is important to protect yourself, your family and your home from particle pollution. Check out the following IAQ tips and solutions to limit particulate matter levels indoors.

1. Invest In a Whole-Home Air Purifier

A whole-home active air purifier can rid your home of dust, viruses, dander, VOCs and other harmful air pollutants that contribute to particulate matter. Whole-home air purifiers that actively seek and eradicate the source of pollutants better limit particle pollution exposure.

2. Install a High-Efficiency Air Filter

MERV 13 HVAC filters have been the go-to expert recommendation due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, air filters with a higher MERV rating (AKA minimum efficiency reporting value) such as 11 and above are a huge home air quality upgrade. MERV 13 filters can capture roughly 90% of large particles and over 70% of small particles, making them still our preferred go-to suggestion. For reference, a MERV 13 air filter can capture and filter out particles that are 0.01 micrometers or smaller.

3. Close Doors and Windows

The sad reality is—your home’s literal location can significantly impact your indoor air quality. If your home is located near factories, industrial centers or power plants, it is best to keep your doors and windows closed as often as possible. Similarly, if you live in a bustling city with lots of planes, trains and automobiles, opt for another form of ventilation. Leaving doors and windows open, especially near large emission sources, can increase your exposure to PM10 and PM2.5.

4. Avoid Residential Wood Burning

Residential wood burning impacts your health, your family’s health and the health of your neighborhood. Wood burning devices such as fireplaces and wood stoves significantly contribute to PM2.5. Invest in other heating technologies instead and limit activities that involve wood burning. Yes, we’re afraid that includes backyard fire pits.

Taking Action Against Particle Pollution Matters

Because particulate matter is the sum of a multitude of solid, liquid and gaseous particles indoors and out, particle pollution exposure can feel quite inevitable. Nevertheless, reducing your exposure in your own home—the space you spend the majority of your time—will have a positive effect and is worth it. Through a combination of healthy home habits and IAQ control solutions, you can better control particle pollution in your indoor space.

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