All of us living in big cities are exposed to particulate matter (PM) in our daily lives. Whether we are walking in the streets, enjoying time with our family in the park, riding on the public transportation or on our own cars, or even sitting at home, everyone is exposed to this type of air pollution and the risk for health increases during the times of haze.
Before showing the different effects of particulate matter in our health, let us start with a quick description of it.
What is PM?
PM is an air pollutant that is composed of a mixture of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air.
When we talk about PM 2.5 we are referring to particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is often called fine PM. It also constitutes a big part of all the PM found in the air.
PM is a mixture with physical and chemical characteristics varying by location. It includes a wide range of different chemical elements as well as biological elements such as allergens and microbial compounds.
Where does PM come from?
PM comes basically from two sources. The first is particle directly emitted into the air and the second is when they are formed in the atmosphere from different gasses. In either case, these gasses can be man-made or natural.
The man-made sources include combustion engines, solid fuels like coal, lignite, heavy oil and biomass, industrial activities and agriculture.
How does PM affect our health?
The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream. Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart.
PM 2.5 are fine particles and are found in smoke and haze. Other coarse particles are found in wind-blown dust and have diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers.
These particles are small enough to penetrate the thoracic area of the respiratory system. The effects on health are due to exposure over both the short term (hours, days) and long term (months, years) and include respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.
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Who is at major risk?
According to the World Health Organization, susceptible groups with pre-existing lung or heart disease, as well as elderly people and children, are particularly vulnerable. For example, exposure to PM affects lung development in children, including chronically reduced lung growth rate and a deficit in long-term lung function.
The black carbon part of PM 2.5, which results from incomplete combustion, is currently seen as responsible for health effects, and are known carcinogens and directly toxic to the cells. Recently, the exhaust from diesel engines (consisting mostly of particles) was classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as carcinogenic to humans.
It is estimated that approximately 3% of cardiopulmonary and 5% of lung cancer deaths are attributable to PM globally. Another study estimates that PM 2.5 accounted for 3.1 million deaths in 2010.
The risk is increased when people are active because exercise and physical activity cause people to breathe faster and more deeply and to take more particles into their lungs.
Children are at increased risk for several reasons. Their lungs are still developing; they spend more time at high activity levels; and they are more likely to have asthma or acute respiratory diseases, which can be aggravated when particle levels are high.
How to avoid exposure to PM?
Your chances of being affected by particles increase the more strenuous your activity and the longer you are active outdoors. In other words, just 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 can be elevated indoors, especially when outdoor particle levels are high. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, certain filters and room air cleaners can help reduce indoor particle levels. In Singapore, Purlife’s indoor air purifiers with 3M HEPA filters are helping people to remove up to 99.97% of pollutants and are compliant with the higher standards of protection.
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