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Particulate Matter

What is Particulate Matter?

Particulate matter, also called PM, is the term for tiny particles found in the air. It is formed in the atmosphere because of chemical reactions between pollutants. These particles include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Some particulate matter is large enough to see, but other particulate matter can be seen only with a microscope. 

Particulate matter is in the air pollution emitted from vehicles, factories, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, and burning of fossil fuels. It is also formed by grilling food on charcoal or gas grills, burning leaves and brush, smoking cigarettes, and burning wood in a fireplace or stove.

The two kinds of particulate matter that are of most concern are PM-10, which is coarse, and PM-2.5, which is fine.

See also: Factories Homes Vehicles and Engines Power Plants Air Pollution Cardiovascular (Heart) Disease Cancer Asthma and other Lung Diseases

Where is Particulate Matter found?

  • Air – emissions from vehicles, cigarettes, industries, grilling food, and burning fossil fuels, wood, and leaves

How can I be exposed to Particulate Matter?

Particulate Matter commonly enter(s) the body through:


Inhalation (breathing)

  • Breathing polluted air or secondhand smoke, smoking cigarettes, living near busy highways or traffic areas

What happens when I am exposed to Particulate Matter?

The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems.

Exposure to small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter poses the greatest problems, causing:

  • Nonfatal heart attacks
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Aggravated asthma
  • Decreased lung function
  • Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing
  • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease

Exposure to diesel exhaust including particulate matter can cause:

  • Cancer

Who is at risk for exposure to Particulate Matter?

  • Consumers
    • Particulate matter is a common air pollutant in most of the air in the United States.
    • People most at risk are those with heart or lung disease, children, and older adults.
  • Cigarette smokers
    • Cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke contain particulate matter.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to particulate matter, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you live near an industrial site that emits particulate matter?
  • Do you live or exercise near a busy highway or high-traffic area?
  • Do you, or does someone in your house, smoke tobacco products?

Reduce particulate matter indoors:

  • Ventilate your home – open doors and windows for fresh air.
  • Keep your house clean. Regularly dust with a wet mop, and vacuum often with a high efficiency vacuum cleaner.
  • Use a medium- or high-efficiency filter in central forced air systems, and change filters regularly.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Use a fan when cooking.
  • Use an electric or gas stove and heater instead of a wood stove or fireplace.
  • Have gas heaters and stoves checked annually by a professional to make sure they work properly and are vented to the outdoors.
  • Never use hibachis, charcoal grills, or unvented space heaters indoors.
  • Limit burning candles and incense indoors, and use them only with good ventilation.
  • Avoid use of air fresheners, cleaning products, and fragrances that have a pine or citrus scent.

Reduce particulate matter outdoors:        

  • Limit your time near idling cars, trucks, and buses.
  • Avoid outdoor activity when and where air pollution levels are high.
  • Avoid physical activity and exercise near high-traffic roadways.
  • Reduce travel during rush hour, and stay away from smoking vehicles on the road.
  • Use electric instead of gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.
  • Don’t let children play near gas stations, idling cars, or busy highways.
  • Don’t let children play outside when air pollution levels are high. 

Community action tools

Find Local Data

AirNow: Interactive Map of Air Quality
A map showing daily trends on ozone and particulate matter.
(Environmental Protection Agency)

Tools for Community Engagement

Building Understanding of Environmental Health
Toolkit that equips environmental health professionals to frame environmental health issues as important matters of public concern.
(Frameworks Institute)

EPA Enforcement
Information on government enforcement actions to reduce air and water pollution, and clean up sites contaminated by waste and chemicals, including links to national compliance initiatives, enforcement cases and data, policy, guidance, and publications.
(Environmental Protection Agency)

Additional Resources

  • Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Trends
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information, data, and charts demonstrating annual national and regional trends in particulate matter (PM2.5).
  • Particulate Matter (PM10) Trends
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information, data, and charts demonstrating annual national and regional trends in particulate matter (PM10).
  • Air Quality Designations for Particle Pollution
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on particle pollution and regulatory guidance standards according to state, territory, and tribal designations.
  • Visibility: Basic Information
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information about haze-forming pollution, the effects on visibility and the environment, and links to relevant resources and agencies.
  • Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on particulate matter pollution, including its effects and methods of reduction, as well as setting, reviewing, and implementing standards.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

Causes Of Poor Visibility
Information about the causes of haze and poor visibility from a resource that provides photographs and information on air quality conditions in the Northeastern United States.
Middle Level Science: Be Particular About Your Matter!
University of Northern Iowa
A lesson plan and activity for middle school students about particulate matter, and  health risks caused by polluted air. 
Particle Pollution
Environmental Protection Agency
A short video about particle pollution.

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National Library of Medicine
Interactive website/video on particle pollution.
Sources of Particulate Matter - Air Pollution: What's the Solution?
Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology
Activity for students in grades 6-12 to determine particulate matter emissions from various sources and determine the source type emitting the most PM10 and PM2.5 in their states.
So What’s Making it Look Brown Outside?
Promoting Understanding and Learning for Society & Environmental Health (PULSE)
A science experiment for high school students to collect and measure particulate matter, and determine which vehicles have higher particulate emissions.
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