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PM 2.5: What Is It and How Can You Minimize Your Exposure?

There’s a new buzz term that’s been circulating in the world of science and health lately: PM 2.5. It’s the topic of a lot of medical and science articles, as well as news headlines and broadcasts that have to do with the coverage of wildfires and pollution. But what is PM 2.5 and why should you know about it? Read on to learn about this buzz term, which you’re sure to hear more frequently in the coming months and years.

What is PM 2.5?

The term “PM 2.5” refers to a particulate material that measures 2.5 microns or smaller. For reference, the cross section of an average human hair is 50 microns, so a particulate material that is 2.5 microns or smaller is downright tiny. In other words, PM 2.5 is a pollutant. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and health organizations around the world categorize particulate matter according to their size, as difference sizes of particles have different effects on human health. For example, particles that are categorized at PM 10, or particles that measures less than 10 microns, can cause eye and nose irritation; however, they cannot be absorbed deep into the lungs, but they can increase the risk of respiratory illness.

Particles that measure 2.5 microns or less are extremely small, and as such, they can have serious negative health effects on human health. That’s because these particles are so incredibly tiny and as such, they can easily slip past the body’s natural defenses; for example, the tiny hairs within the nose and mucus are less likely to capture these small pieces of particulate matter, and therefore, they can penetrate deep within the human body. According to health agencies, particles that are categorized as PM 2.5 can be absorbed in the lungs, spread to the alveoli, and they can even potentially pass into the bloodstream. Because of the potential negative health effects that can be caused by PM 2.5, being aware of it is extremely important.

Particles that are categorized as PM 2.5 are highly complex, as they can be comprised of a variety of particles and chemicals, and instead of being a solid, like a common particle of dust, they can be partially liquid. Particulate pollutants that are partially or entirely comprised of liquid droplets are classified as aerosols. There are several types of aerosols in the natural world; sea salt, dust, and volcanic ash are just some example. There are several types of aerosols, however, that are comprised of synthetic or man-made elements; chemicals and emissions from vehicles and factories, and the combustion of oil, for example.

Causes of PM 2.5

Pollutants that are categorized as PM 2.5 are derived from several sources, which is why it is considered such a complex form of pollution. Some of the sources of PM 2.5 emit these tiny particles of pollutants directly and are referred to as “primary sources”. Examples of primary sources of PM 2.5 include:

  • Some power plants
  • Some industrial processes
  • Wildfires

There are also secondary PM 2.5 particles, and they are formed when different types of chemicals combine in the air. For example, chemicals that are emitted from plants that are powered by coal or exhaust from automobiles can have a reaction with water vapor in the atmosphere, as well as sunlight. This combination can form new particles or compounds, and those new particles or compounds can measure 2.5 microns in size or smaller.

Since the formation of particles from chemical compounds are endless, combined with numerous variable factors, such as climate, weather, region, and even human activity, determining exactly what type of chemicals are present in PM 2.5 particles at any given time can be virtually impossible. It’s important to note that PM 2.5 is not only found in outdoor air; it can be found in indoor air, as well. Examples of some of the most common sources of indoor PM 2.5 include coal-burning fires, fumes from cooking, and even the burning of candles.

The Dangers of PM 2.5

Given the extremely small size of PM 2.5 particles, it comes as no surprise that exposure to particles that measure 2.5 microns in size or smaller can have adverse health effects. In fact, several health and scientific studies have revealed that high levels of PM 2.5 particles in the air increase the risk of negative health effects. Examples of these increased negative health effects include:

  • The development of new respiratory diseases
  • Exacerbation of symptoms of existing respiratory diseases
  • The development of cardiovascular problems
  • Increased risk of heart attacks
  • In extreme cases, exposure to PM 2.5 can even cause death

The impact of exposure to PM 2/5 can be very far-reaching and long-lasting. That’s because of the way that these small particles can interact with the human body. They can bypass nose hairs and mucous, make their way into the lungs, and cause a whole host of issues. These particles can eventually make their way into the bloodstream, and as such, they can make their way into vital organs. This, combined with the fact that it is very difficult to expel from the body, is what makes PM 2.5 extremely dangerous. For comparison, PM 10 (particulate matter that measure 10 microns or greater) can be easily expelled from the body via sneezing and coughing.

In a study that was conducted in 2010, it was determined that exposure to PM 2.5 over the span of just a few hours can spark mortality as a result of cardiovascular disease, as well as health effects that may not be fatal, but that can cause serious, long-lasting complications. As per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though exposure to particulate pollution is bad for all, specific populations are more prone to health complications than others. For example, those who are afflicted with lung and heart diseases, the elderly, young children, and infants are more at risk of experiencing serious health effects when they are exposed to PM 2.5 particles. Furthermore, those who have heart disease can begin to exhibit symptoms immediately after exposure to high concentrations of PM 2.5.

Environmental Impact of PM 2.5

The health implications of PM 2.5 have been found to have severe negative implications on the environment around the globe, as well as on the population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution has resulted in the deaths of an estimated seven million people around the globe each year. According to WHO data, 9 out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants.

While all areas of the world are impacted by PM 2.5, Asian countries have experienced particularly high levels of air pollution that contains PM 2.5 contaminants. In the 20 year period between 1990 and 2010, it has been estimated that deaths that resulted from PM 2.5 exposures in South Asia increased by 85 percent and in East Asia by 21 percent. The massive increase PM 2.5 in these locations has been primarily driven by increased manufacturing and automobile use, combined with reduced controls on air pollution, as well as minimal enforcement of pollution regulations that do exist.

Another region that has been largely impacted by PM 2.5 pollution is India. Satellite data pertaining to PM 2.5 that was collected by NASA was collated by The Financial Times, and it was determine that more than 4 in 10 Indians are exposed to five times the limit of particulate matter in the air they breathe that has been deemed safe by health and environmental agencies. The city of Delhi has been particularly impacted, due to government-enforced burning of crops. Due to this burning, it is common for the skies to become hazy and the winds then spread the smoke – and the PM 2.5 that it contains – across a large portion of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. That haze has increased the levels of PM 2.5 matter in the air over Delhi to hazardous levels.

South Korea is yet another region that has experienced a marked increase in air pollution and exposure to PM 2.5 particulate matter, which is largely due to the close proximity to China and increased industrial activity within the country’s own borders. In 2016, a report stated that the air quality index in Seoul was deemed unhealthy for those who are sensitive to PM 2.5, including the elderly, children, and infants, as well as those who suffer from existing respiratory conditions, for 78 days in a row.

In the West, however, the situation is quite different. In North America and Europe, for example, the exposure to PM 2.5 has actually decreased over the last two decades. This is largely due to increased air pollution controls, and the enforcement of these controls.

Since PM 2.5 is so difficult to expel from the body and because it has the potential to cause such serious adverse health effects, and due to the findings mentioned above, it has been determined that taking steps to reduce primary PM sources is the most effective way to increase air-quality, and thus, improve the health of populations.

How Can You Protect Yourself From High PM 2.5 Levels Outside

In order to protect yourself from PM 2.5 when you’re outdoors, the first thing you need to do is find out when PM 2.5 levels in the area where you will be going outside are at high levels. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gathers data related to air quality from locations across the country and that data is then presented in a clear and concise air quality map and an air quality forecast. Check this information to find out what the current and the predicted air quality conditions are in your local area. The EPA offers tools that you can use to see the different types of particulate pollutants – including PM 2.5 – that are in the air.

The regulations that have been set forth by the EPA split air quality into a variety of categories, and those categories are based on the amount of micrograms of a given type of pollutant per cubic meter of air (ug/m3). Each of the pollutant categories have their own individual breakpoints, which are divided by ug/m3, and PM 2.5 and PM 10 are placed in their own categories. The EPA categories are as follows:

  • 350.4 ug/m3 = Hazardous. When air quality falls in this category, it is considered so poor that it is hazardous. This level almost never happens over widespread areas in the United States, but rather, it can occur in smaller, more confined areas, such as in regions where wildfires are active or when smog levels are high. If the air is hazardous in this area and you are in an at-risk group, you should avoid going outside, and in fact, you may even want to consider evacuating the area until the air quality improves.
  • 250.4 ug/m3 =very unhealthy. This rating is still rare, but it can occur during wildfires in an urban locations when the temperatures and humidity levels are high. Outdoor activities should be avoided.
  • 150.4 ug/m3 = unhealthy. When PM 2.5 pollutants are at this level, you should limit the amount of time you spend outside.
  • 55.4 ug/m3 = unhealthy for sensitive groups. Those who are sensitive to PM 2.5, such as those with respiratory health conditions and cardiovascular disease, should limit the amount of time they spend outside.
  • 35.4 ug/m3 = moderate. At this level, unless you are in a sensitive group, you do not need to limit your time outside.
  • 12 ug/m3 = acceptable. At this level, the air is considered clean and no restrictions or limits are needed for anyone, including those who are in sensitive groups.

To reiterate, if the indoor air quality in your local area has elevated levels of PM 2.5 pollutants, you should reduce the amount of time you spend outside. If you are in a sensitive group, you should avoid going outdoors until the air quality improves. Spending time outside when PM 2.5 pollutants are high and/or partaking in physical activities outside can lead to numerous adverse health effects, such as worsening cardiovascular and respiratory health symptoms, increased heart rate, coughing, and wheezing.

If you need to go out and you’re concerned about the air pollution in your area, you can try wearing a face mask. There are some studies that have indicated that a face mask can minimize the amount of PM 2.5 pollutants you inhale, but it is important to note that the studies are not conclusive and there is no direct evidence that confirms their effectiveness. Remember that particles that measure 2.5 microns in size or smaller are extremely small and are likely to pass through the holes and gaps along the sides, tops, and bottoms of a face mask.

How To Protect Yourself from PM 2.5 Exposure Indoors

Outdoor air isn’t the only air that can be impacted by PM 2.5 pollutants; indoor air can also be impacted by these small particles. They can accumulate inside for a number of reasons. As mentioned previously, burning coal-powered fires can increase the risk of PM 2.5 pollutants in indoor air. Additionally, these tiny particles can make their way inside through opened windows and doors, through fireplaces, and through gaps in your home’s siding, roof, and foundation.

To protect yourself from PM 2.5 exposure indoors, try to limit the amount of these pollutants in your indoor air. Vacuuming with a vacuum that features a HEPA filter can be effective. You can also try using an air purifier that is fitted with a HEPA filter. A portable air purifier may be effective; however, a whole house HEPA air purification system would be even better.

Inspect Your House for Mold

PM 2.5 pollutants aren’t the only cause for concern. Mold is also a serious concern. Exposure to indoor mold growth can cause a number of adverse health effects. Those who have been diagnosed with respiratory illnesses are more prone to issues, as the spores can exacerbate symptoms; however, even those who are otherwise health can be impacted by mold exposure.

By scheduling an appointment with a professional company that specializes in mold detection, you will breathe a lot easier. In the event that it is determined that mold is, indeed, growing inside your home, you can take the steps that are necessary to eliminate the mold, and thereby, improve the quality of your indoor air

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