What Is Particle Pollution and Does It Affect Health?

It's often too small to see, but it can kill you

Exhausted runner
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Particle pollution is a mixture of tiny particles and droplets made up of dirt, dust, soot, smoke and liquid compounds. These particles are a type of air pollution, and they can be particularly damaging to your health.

When you inhale particle pollution, it can harm your lungs, especially if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma. Particle pollution also has been implicated in heart attacks and in lung cancer, and in low birth weight for babies.

Exposure to this type of air pollution can lead to eye and throat irritation.

Particle pollution is typically made up of components like nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. The ingredients can vary by season (for example, soot and smoke from wood fires, more common in winter, is a form of particle pollution).

Which Particles Are More Harmful?

When it comes to particle pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the size of the particle matters most.

In general, smaller particles (those that are 10 micrometers or less in diameter) have a greater potential for causing health problems than larger ones. This is because smaller particles can enter the lungs much more easily during inhalation, by way of the nose and throat. Some even can enter your bloodstream.

The EPA separates particle pollution into two distinct categories:

  • Inhalable coarse particles often are found near dusty roadways or industrial areas, for example. They are larger than 2.5 micrometers and smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter. Sources of this size of particle pollution include grinding operations and dust stirred up by traffic on roads.
  • Fine particles are found in smoke and haze. They can be emitted from forest fires, or they can form when gasses from industrial power plants or cars reach the air and produce a chemical reaction.

The agency estimates that reducing fine particle pollution by 10% could prevent more than 13,000 deaths annually in the U.S.

Protecting Yourself From Particle Pollution

It may seem like particle pollution is all around you (and you're right, it is), but there are some steps you can take to protect yourself from it.

First, familiarize yourself with the EPA's Air Quality Index, which is reported daily on weather websites (and on weather broadcasts, especially when it reaches unhealthy levels).

When you plan a day outdoors, check the Air Quality Index, and consider changing your plans to spend more time indoors if the air quality is expected to be problematic. In addition, when air quality is bad or marginal, try not to plan outdoor activities that cause you to breathe heavily — in other words, walk leisurely instead of jogging, and avoid busy roads where there's more traffic (and therefore pollution).

Older adults, people with heart or lung conditions, and babies and children are the most susceptible to health problems from particle pollution, so take extra care to protect you and your family if you fall into those categories.

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