Particulate Matter Health Impacts

Particulate matter - is responsible for the black smoke traditionally associated with diesel powered vehicles. Diesel particulate matter emissions are usually abbreviated as PM or DPM, the latter acronym being more common in occupational health applications. The existing medical research suggests that PM is one of the major harmful emissions produced by diesel engines. Diesel particulate matter is subject to diesel emission regulations worldwide.

Due to the small size of many of the particles that form PM some of these toxins may enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs. Therefore, exposure to PM can result in serious impacts to health, especially in vulnerable groups of people such as the young, elderly, and those with respiratory problems. As a result, particulates are classified according to size.

In comparison, the average diameter of a human hair equals 50-70 µm.

Particles so small they can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream.

Particles small enough to pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects. 

What Kinds of Harmful Effects Can Particulate Matter Cause?

A number of adverse health impacts have been associated with exposure to both PM2.5 and PM10.

For PM2.5, short-term exposures (up to 24-hours duration) have been associated with premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for heart or lung causes, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, respiratory symptoms, and restricted activity days.

These adverse health effects have been reported primarily in infants, children, and older adults with pre-existing heart or lung diseases. In addition, of all of the common air pollutants, PM2.5 is associated with the greatest proportion of adverse health effects related to air pollution, both in the United States and world-wide based on the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Project.

Short-term exposures to PM10 have been associated primarily with worsening of respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), leading to hospitalization and emergency department visits. More than 90% of Diesel Particulate Matter is less than 1 µm in diameter.

Long-term (months to years) exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to premature death, particularly in people who have chronic heart or lung diseases, and reduced lung function growth in children. 

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The effects of long-term exposure to PM10 are less clear, although several studies suggest a link between long-term PM10 exposure and respiratory mortality. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a review in 2015 that concluded that particulate matter in outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer.

Comparative particle size. 

The American Heart Association also warns about the effect of PM2.5 on health and mortality rate:

“Exposure to PM <2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) over a few hours to weeks can trigger cardiovascular disease-related mortality and nonfatal events; longer-term exposure (eg, a few years) increases the risk for cardiovascular mortality to an even greater extent than exposures over a few days and reduces life expectancy within more highly exposed segments of the population by several months to a few years.”