Health effects of inhaling particulate matter

The effects of inhaling particulate matter have been widely studied in humans and animals and include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular issues, and premature death. The size of the particle is a main determinant of where in the respiratory tract the particle will come to rest when inhaled. Larger particles are generally filtered in the nose and throat and do not cause problems, but particulate matter smaller than about 10 micrometres, referred to as PM10, can settle in the bronchi and lungs and cause health problems. The 10 micrometer size does not represent a strict boundary between respirable and non-respirable particles, but has been agreed upon for monitoring of airborne particulate matter by most regulatory agencies.

Similarly, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres, PM2.5, tend to penetrate into the gas-exchange regions of the lung, and very small particles (< 100 nanometers) may pass through the lungs to affect other organs.

In particular, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that PM2.5 leads to high plaque deposits in arteries, causing vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis — a hardening of the arteries that reduces elasticity, which can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.

Researchers suggest that even short-term exposure at elevated concentrations could significantly contribute to heart disease. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have conducted the largest nationwide study in the United States on the acute health effects of coarse particle pollution. Coarse particles are airborne pollutants that fall between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter.

The study, published in the May 14, 2008, edition of JAMA, found evidence of an association with hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases but no evidence of an association with the number of hospital admissions for respiratory diseases. After taking into account fine particle levels, the association with coarse particles remained but was no longer statistically significant. The smallest particles, less than 100 nanometers (nanoparticles), may be even more damaging to the cardiovascular system. There is evidence that particles smaller than 100 nanometres can pass through cell membranes and migrate into other organs, including the brain.

It has been suggested that particulate matter can cause similar brain damage as that found in Alzheimer patients. Particles emitted from modern diesel engines (commonly referred to as Diesel Particulate Matter, or DPM) are typically in the size range of 100 nanometres (0.1 micrometres). In addition, these soot particles also carry carcinogenic components like benzopyrenes adsorbed on their surface. It is becoming increasingly clear that the legislative limits for engines, which are in terms of emitted mass, are not a proper measure of the health hazard. One particle of 10 µm diameter has approximately the same mass as 1 million particles of 100 nm diameter, but it is clearly much less hazardous, as it probably never enters the human body - and if it does, it is quickly removed.

Proposals for new regulations exist in some countries, with suggestions to limit the particle surface area or the particle number. The large number of deaths and other health problems associated with particulate pollution was first demonstrated in the early 1970s [6] and has been reproduced many times since. PM pollution is estimated to cause 22,000-52,000 deaths per year in the United States (from 2000) and 200,000 deaths per year in Europe.

EU legislation

In directives 1999/30/EC and 96/62/EC, the European Commission has set limits for PM10 in the air:

Phase 1

from 1 January 2005

Phase 2¹

from 1 January 2010

Yearly average 40 µg/m³ 20 µg/m³
Daily average (24-hour) 50 µg/m³ 50 µg/m³
allowed number of excesses per year 35 7

¹ indicative value.