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Particulate Matter

What is it?

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: Power Plants Vehicles and Engines Air Pollution Factories Homes Cancer Cardiovascular (Heart) Disease 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

Today's National Air Quality Forecast Maps
Daily maps on ozone and particulate matter.
(Environmental Protection Agency)

Tools for Community Engagement

EPA Enforcement
Learn how to take action for the enforcement of Air, Water, Waste/Chemical clean up.
(Environmental Protection Agency)

Building Understanding of Environmental Health
Toolkit to help those that work in the environmental health sector increase public understanding about the issues that surrond this topic
(Frameworks Institute)

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