Particulate Matter: What You Don’t Know Could Kill You
The health effects of particulate matter and how countries can shape air filtration strategies
It’s become almost a cliché in the air filtration industry to mention the words “particulate matter,” because they are so often used to explain one of the major causes of low indoor air quality.
But the truth is, particulate matter lies at the heart of what makes the air inside many commercial facilities so hazardous to human health, so there is no way to overstate the importance of understanding all the ins and outs of particulate matter.
“We have found that there is so little knowledge about particulate matter among the populations that are most affected by substandard indoor air quality,” stated Charlie Seyffer, Technical Services Manager at Camfil, USA. “There is really no way to begin the discussion of air quality without talking in depth about particulate matter and how it can adversely affect human health. As a result, even a basic understanding of this issue will move the discussion about clean air solutions in a very positive direction.”
On a fundamental level, most people understand what air pollution means, but the details are understandably fuzzy about what exactly causes harmful air.
What the EPA Says about Particulate Matter
For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done its best to educate the public about the dangers of particulate matter.
On the agency’s website, under the title Particulate Matter (PM) Basics, PM is the acronym for particulate matter, which is described as:
“A mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke, are larger or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”
PM is typically broken down into three ranges: PM10, PM2.5, and the smallest range PM1.
PM1 refers to the smallest of all inhalable particles that have a diameter of 1.0 micrometers or smaller, the most dangerous where 98% of all airborne particles reside.
PM2.5 refers to fine inhalable particles that have a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller, the higher end of respirable particles that can get into the lungs and do damage.
PM10 refers to inhalable particles that have a diameter of 10 micrometers or smaller, typically defined as coarse particles.
But to put these sizes into perspective, 1 micrometer is 100 times smaller than a strand of human hair.
Particulate matter can be generated from the agglomeration of gases and liquids emitted from power plants, factories and vehicles exhaust.
Chemicals such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide result from a complex series of reactions, and can form into particulate matter.
WHO Study Catalogs the Dangers of PM Exposure
A comprehensive World Health Organization (WHO) study on the health effects of particulate matter in certain European countries, found that short-term and long-term exposure to PM2.5 can cause “respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity, such as aggravation of asthma, respiratory symptoms and an increase in hospital admissions.”
People with lung or heart disease, the elderly and children are at the highest risk of being affected by elevated levels of PM2.5 and PM1, because their immune systems are compromised or not fully developed.
But the most alarming aspect of the study was the discovery that diesel engine exhaust has now been classified as a carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
A piece published on the American Cancer Society’s webpage, further explained this classification:
“Exhaust from diesel engines brings a complex mixture of soot and gases to roadways, cities, farms, and other places. Health concerns about diesel exhaust relate not only to cancer, but also to other health problems such as lung and heart diseases.”
And while it may seem as if particulate matter exposure is only a problem for people who spend time outdoors, that is not the truth.
In fact, because so many commercial facilities use outdoor air in their ventilation systems, PM concentrations are often many times higher indoors than outdoors.
The reason is that once PM-contaminated air enters an enclosed space that lacks an effective air filtration system, it can remain airborne for days and weeks, posing a health risk to employees and visitors who frequent the facility.
Throughout the world, about three percent of cardiopulmonary fatalities and five percent of lung cancer fatalities are directly linked to particulate matter. In Europe, between one and three percent of cardiopulmonary fatalities and between two and five percent of lung cancer fatalities are tied to particulate matter.
In 2010 alone, it is estimated that more than three million people passed away due to exposure to PM2.5.
Clean Air Solutions
At Camfil Air Filters, we are dedicated to providing you with actionable resources to help improve the quality of air at your commercial facility.
Particulate matter is a big issue at a number of commercial industries, and without an air filtration strategy, the quality of indoor air will continue to deteriorate.
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