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The Effects of Particulate Matter (PM2.5) on Your Body

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Particulate matter, or PM, is an air pollutant that consists of both solid, as well as liquid parts, suspended in air. It is usually composed of sulfates, nitrates, ammonium, elemental carbon, calcium, various metals, particle-bound water, and more, however, the exact elements usually change from one area to another. The substance is described through several indicators that refer to the size of the particles. In the case of PM2.5, the particles have a diameter of 2.5 µm.

More and more researchers have recently started paying attention to the link between respiratory disease and air pollution, in light of the incredibly high levels of smog that have been recorded in China. While the whole world is worried by the how cities such as Beijing have degraded due to pollution, the most drastic measures are being taken by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

The organization has modified the “Protocol to Abate Acidification, Eutrophication, and Groundlevel Ozone” in order to push European states to commit to the reduction of main air pollutants by 2020, however, it is continually researching the issue. One of the commitments included in the protocol refers to the reduction of particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions, including black carbon.

It is also important to note that PM with a diameter of 1 µm or below, can remain in the atmosphere for several weeks, and, as a result, can be freely transported by air currents.

There are two ways through which PM emissions are generated. The first one is by directly releasing the particles into the atmosphere(primary PM), and the second is by releasing its precursors, such as sulfur dioxide, ammonia, various oxides of nitrogen and other elements which combine in the atmosphere. These elements come from liquid and solid fossil fuel sources, such as diesel engines, coal, lignite, heavy oil, etc.

Effects of PM2.5

The effects that PM2.5 particles has on the human respiratory system are well documented. While the gravity of the health risks usually depends on exposure, researchers have discovered that both PM10 and PM2.5 can cause lung cancer and various cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The groups that are the most vulnerable to these health problems are individuals with pre-existing heart or lung disease, children and elderly people. Furthermore, the fact that there is no evidence to indicate that there is a safe level of exposure is particularly worrying.

Researchers have estimated that, on a global level, approximately 5% of the number of lung cancer deaths are attributed to PM. Also, a 2014 study published by the European Office of the World Health Organization has shown that exposure to PM2.5 reduces the life expectancy of the Europe’s population by an average of 8.6 months.

On a more personal level, individuals can determine if they are affected by particle pollution by analyzing their symptoms. Those who have lung and heart disease, and are aware of the fact that they live in a polluted area, should ask their doctor whether or not they should move from the area, however, even healthy people may suffer from chest tightness, shortness of breath, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. In time, these may lead to health complications that may evolve in more serious problems. Also, keep in mind that children, elderly people, and pregnant women are much more vulnerable to this type of pollution, and should take extra precautions(either avoiding contaminated areas or by wearing protective gear).

PM2.5 distribution around the globe. Picture (c) NASA

This having been said, particulate matter emissions can be reduced using current technology, however, this requires that the entire world makes an effort. The fact that PM2.5 can travel through our atmosphere means that if a country were to ignore the changes made by other states, there is a high possibility that nearby regions will also suffer from exposure. This brings us to the need of a set of unified regulations designed to cut PM pollution in all industries and to be enforced across the globe.

Unfortunately, such a project would require that a large number of changes be made, affecting a large portion of our industry and society. Furthermore, while there are some regulations in place, the development of new, tighter standards will take time. Countries that do not follow these regulations are constantly damaging the environment and the health of human populations across the globe.

In the meantime, those worried that they may live in areas polluted with PM2.5 can reduce their exposure by:

  • Staying in indoor areas with filtered air. While particle pollution can get indoors, air cleaners are extremely effective at removing harmful particles from air;
  • Avoiding activities that would increase their heart rate and, as a result, the speed at which they breathe;
  • Install a filtering system or clean the room that you sleep in. Some may not have the possibility to install air cleaners in their home, however, installing a smaller system in the bedroom is a lot cheaper. This enables exposure to be minimized in the 6-8 hours that people spend sleeping;
  • Do not think that dust masks will protect you in any way. These have been designed in order to trap larger particles. Instead, consider using disposable respirators such as the N-95, which will protect you for a certain period of time.

Organizations and governments from around the World are becoming increasingly strict when it comes to regulations meant to reduce all forms of pollution. It is only a matter of time until air quality returns to normal, and we start undoing the damage that we have done to our environment. However, it is vital that we protect ourselves until then and that we try to always be a part of the solution, not the problem.

For pollution to be exterminated, humanity has to implement technologies that form a feedback loop, and it all starts with its awareness. You can detect particulate matter (PM2.5) with various technologies nowadays. There already is a worldwide-spread network of pollution and radiation detectors made by an entrepreneur in Europe, it’s called uRadMonitor and you can check it here. You can even participate with your own local data by joining the network.

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