What is Particulate Matter and Why Is it Dangerous?

By Johnathan Orellana

Updated:

Reading time: 4 minutes

Filed Under: Air Quality

Whether you realize it or not, you encounter particulate matter every day. It comes from numerous sources, including gas-burning vehicles, factories, and other industrial sources. When particulate matter reaches high concentrations, you will see haze or smoke that clouds your visibility. You can also find particulate matter indoors, but indoor air quality monitors can be used to keep this under control.

Since these particles are so small, you can easily breathe them in. High concentrations are dangerous and can negatively impact your health. Keep reading to better understand what it is and how you can protect yourself.

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter (PM) is made of a mixture of small liquid and solid particles. These particles are acids, metals, organic chemicals, and dirt or dust. It can range from 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter.

There are two primary different types:

PM10: inhalable particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less.

PM2.5: fine inhalable particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

PM1: very fine inhalable particles with a diameter of 1 micrometers or less such as dust, combustion particles, bacteria, and viruses. PM1 is increasingly becoming an important metric, even more so during COVID-19.

Fine inhalable particles are not visible to the naked eye, but it is possible to see inhalable particles (PM10) when they cluster together in a small area at a high density.

Regardless of the type, there are numerous sources such as fires, construction sites, and unpaved roads. Among the various sources, power plants, industrial factories, and automobiles contribute the most to air pollution and produce the largest quantities.

Although particulate matter is generally found in outdoor environments, it can also be found indoors. Indoors, produced by combustion activities such as cooking or burning wood at the fireplace can increase the number of particles in the air.  

Why is particulate matter dangerous?

Since particulate matter is prevalent in industrial cities, it is a common health risk that can be dangerous depending on the air pollution levels in your area. Since these particles are small and usually not visible, breathing it in poses a major health risk, especially for children, older adults, and those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular problems.

PM10, PM2.5, and PM1 are all inhalable, but the smallest particles (PM2.5 and PM1) pose the greatest risk to your health. These particles are small enough to travel deep into the lungs and potentially enter the bloodstream.

Some common symptoms of inhalation are:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lung and throat irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Chest pain

These symptoms can worsen if you suffer from a pre-existing health condition. If you feel any of these symptoms, move indoors to breathe cleaner air and rest until the symptoms disappear.

wearing a mask Image Credit: Rawpixel.com - stock.adobe.com

How can I reduce my exposure to particulate matter?

To avoid putting your health at risk, poor air quality might force you to take action. There are a few different strategies you can use.

  • Staying indoors: The easiest way to avoid particulate matter is to spend more time indoors. This puts a barrier between you and the source.
  • Avoid high-traffic roads: Since automobiles are a big contributor to air pollution, avoiding high-traffic roads and highways will greatly reduce your exposure during your daily commutes.
  • Wear a mask: If you cannot avoid areas with high levels of air pollution, use PM2.5 masks to protect yourself from small inhalable particles.

To reduce your exposure, try one of these strategies to protect yourself.

awair element indoor air quality monitorImage Credit: Awair

How can I monitor particulate matter?

The best online tool for monitoring particulate matter is the air quality index (AQI) provided by the EPA. This tool measures the air quality in your area. All you need to do to check the air quality in your area is provide your zip code, city, and/or state.

A personal weather station is another effective way to monitor particulate matter. These devices provide all the information you need about weather conditions, such as PM levels, humidity, wind speed, and more.

Alternatively, if you are looking for an indoor air quality monitor, then your best option would be the Awair Element. This device reports PM2.5, humidity, CO2, and VOCs in your home while also tracking changes in the air quality over time.

Another great device you can use to monitor particulate in your home is the AirThings Wave Plus. Unlike the Awair Element, this device is an award-wining monitor that detects radon, which is a radioactive gas that is sometimes found in homes. Additionally, the AirThings Wave Plus delivers data on pollen levels directly to your phone through the Airthings app.

Wrapping Up

Although particulate matter is dangerous, there are numerous ways to monitor and protect yourself from it. You may encounter it regularly, but that does not mean it has to negatively impact your life.

Installing an air quality monitor in your home will provide peace of mind while also ensuring that levels are kept in check. With some careful preparation, you can reduce your exposure and live healthier.

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About the Author

Johnathan Orellana

Johnathan is The Weather Station Experts' resident "explainer in chief," writing many of our educational and how-to articles. He has been freelance writing for the past two years, specializing in digital marketing and general marketing tips.

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