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Ever look at dirty truck exhaust?
The dirty, smoky part of that stream of exhaust is made of particle pollution. Overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution—like that coming from that exhaust smoke—can kill. Particle pollution can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.
What Is Particle Pollution?
Who Is at Risk?
What Can Particles Do to Your Health?
Short-Term Exposure Can Be Deadly?
Year-Round Exposure Can Kill and May Cause Cancer
EPA Concludes Fine Particle Pollution Poses Serious Health Threats
Where Does Particle Pollution Come From?
Are Some Particles More Dangerous than Others?
Particle pollution refers to a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. Many of the particles are so small as to be invisible, but when levels are high, the air becomes opaque. But nothing about particle pollution is simple. And it is so dangerous that it can shorten your life.
Size matters. Particles themselves are different sizes. Some are one-tenth the diameter of a strand of hair. Many are even tinier; some are so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope. Because of their size, you can’t see the individual particles. You can only see the haze that forms when millions of particles blur the spread of sunlight.
The differences in size make a big difference in how they affect us. Our natural defenses help us to cough or sneeze larger particles out of our bodies. But those defenses don’t keep out smaller particles, those that are smaller than 10 microns (or micrometers) in diameter, or about one-seventh the diameter of a single human hair. These particles get trapped in the lungs, while the smallest are so minute that they can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, just like the essential oxygen molecules we need to survive.
Researchers categorize particles according to size, grouping them as coarse, fine and ultrafine. Coarse particles (shown as blue dots in the illustration) fall between 2.5 microns and 10 microns in diameter and are called PM10-2.5. Fine particles (shown as pink dots) are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller and are called PM2.5. Ultrafine particles (not shown) are smaller than 0.1 micron in diameter1 and are small enough to pass through the lung tissue into the blood stream, circulating like the oxygen molecules themselves. No matter what the size, particles can harm your health.
“A mixture of mixtures.” Because particles form in so many different ways, they can be composed of many different compounds. Although we often think of particles as solids, not all are. Some are completely liquid; others are solids suspended in liquids. As the EPA puts it, particles are really “a mixture of mixtures.” 2
The mixtures differ between the eastern and western United States and in different times of the year. For example, the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast states have more sulfate particles than the West on average, largely due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide emitted by large, coal-fired power plants. By contrast, nitrate particles from motor vehicle exhaust form a larger proportion of the unhealthful mix in the winter in the Northeast, Southern California, the Northwest and North Central U.S.3
Anyone who lives where particle pollution levels are high is at risk. Some people face higher risk, however. People at the greatest risk from particle pollution exposure include:
- Infants, children and teens;4
- People over 65 years of age;5
- People with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema;
- People with heart disease6 or diabetes;7
- People with low incomes; 8 and
- People who work or are active outdoors. 9
Diabetics face increased risk at least in part because of their higher risk for cardiovascular disease. 10
People with lung cancer also appear to be at higher risk from particle pollution, according to a 2016 study of more than 350,000 patients in California. Researchers looked at the exposure they experienced between 1988 and 2011 and found that where higher concentrations of particle pollution existed, people with lung cancer had poorer survival.11
Particle pollution can be very dangerous to breathe. Breathing particle pollution may trigger illness, hospitalization and premature death, risks that are showing up in new studies that validate earlier research.
Thanks to steps taken to reduce particle pollution, good news is growing from researchers who study the drop in year-round levels of particle pollution.
- Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most. 12
- Another long-term study of six U.S. cities tracked from 1974 to 2009 added more evidence of the benefits. The findings suggest that cleaning up particle pollution had almost immediate health benefits. The researchers estimated that the U.S. could prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths a year if the nation could lower annual levels of particle pollution by 1 µg/m3.13
- Other researchers estimated that reductions in air pollution can be expected to produce rapid improvements in public health, with fewer deaths occurring within the first two years after reductions.14
These studies add to the growing research that cleaning up air pollution improves life and health.
First and foremost, short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill. Peaks or spikes in particle pollution can last from hours to days. Premature deaths from breathing these particles can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred so early if the air were cleaner. 15
Even low levels of particles can be deadly. A 2016 study found that people aged 65 and older in New England faced a higher risk of premature death from particle pollution, even in places that met current standards for short-term particle pollution.16 Another study in 2017 looked more closely at Boston and found a similar higher risk of premature death from particle pollution in a city that meets current limits on short-term particle pollution.17
Looking nationwide in a 2017 study, researchers found more evidence that older adults faced a higher risk of premature death even when levels of short-term particle pollution remained well below the current national standards. This was consistent whether the older adults lived in cities, suburbs or rural areas.18
Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects include coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to extensive research, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:
- death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;19,20,21,22
- increased mortality in infants and young children;23
- increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;24
- inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;25
- increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;26,27,28
- increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;29
- increased hospitalization for asthma among children;30,31,32
- increased severity of asthma attacks in children.33
Again, the impact of even short-term exposure to particle pollution on healthy adults was demonstrated in the Galveston lifeguard study. In addition to the harmful effects of ozone pollution, lifeguards had reduced lung volume at the end of the day when fine particle levels were high.34
Breathing high levels of particle pollution day in and day out also can be deadly, as landmark studies in the 1990s conclusively showed35 and as other studies confirmed.36 Chronic exposure to particle pollution can shorten life by one to three years.37 Recent research has confirmed that long-term exposure to particle pollution still kills, even with the declining levels in the U.S. since 2000 38 and even in areas, such as New England, that currently meet the official limit, or standard, for year-round particle pollution. 39
In late 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (known as IARC), part of the World Health Organization, concluded that particle pollution causes lung cancer. The IARC reviewed the most recent research and reported that the risk of lung cancer increases as the particle levels rise. 40
Year-round exposure to particle pollution has also been linked to:
- increased hospitalization for asthma attacks for children living near roads with heavy truck or trailer traffic;41,42
- slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers;43,44
- development of asthma in children up to age 14;45
- significant damage to the small airways of the lungs;46
- increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease;47 and
- increased risk of lower birth weight and infant mortality.48
Research into the health risks of 65,000 women over age 50 found that those who lived in areas with higher levels of particle pollution faced a much greater risk of dying from heart disease than had been previously estimated. Even women who lived within the same city faced differing risks depending on the annual levels of pollution in their neighborhood.49
New research has found evidence that long-term exposure to particle pollution may increase the risk of developing diabetes. Two independent reviews of published research found that particle pollution may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus.50
Scientists have found links between particle pollution and mental health concerns. A study of 27,000 residents in Seoul, Korea, found that breathing particle pollution over a long time increased the risk of major depressive disorder. The risk was higher for those who also had a chronic disease such as asthma, COPD, or diabetes.51 Older adults suffered more symptoms of depression and anxiety when particle pollution was higher in a large study looking at data from community living groups across the United States. Those who lived in lower socioeconomic situations or who had a history of respiratory illness or heart disease were more likely to have anxiety symptoms.52
EPA completed their most recent review of the current research on particle pollution in December 2009.53 EPA had engaged a panel of expert scientists, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, to help them assess the evidence. EPA concluded that particle pollution caused multiple, serious threats to health. Their findings are highlighted in the box below.
- Causes early death (both short-term and long-term exposure)
- Causes cardiovascular harm (e.g., heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, congestive heart failure)
- Likely to cause respiratory harm (e.g. worsened asthma, worsened COPD, inflammation)
- May cause cancer
- May cause reproductive and developmental harm
—U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter, December 2009. EPA 600/R-08/139F
Particle pollution is produced through two separate processes—mechanical and chemical.
Mechanical processes break down bigger bits into smaller bits with the material remaining essentially the same, only becoming smaller. Mechanical processes primarily create coarse particles. 54 Dust storms, construction and demolition, mining operations and agriculture are among the activities that produce coarse particles. Tire, brake-pad and road wear can also create coarse particles. Bacteria, pollen, mold, and plant and animal debris are also included as coarse particles.55
By contrast, chemical processes in the atmosphere create most of the tiniest fine and ultrafine particles in the air. Some particles have precursors that are gases emitted by burning fuels or other human activity or by natural resources. These gases can oxidize and then condense to become a particle of a simple chemical compound. Or, they can react with other gases or particles in the atmosphere to form a particle of a different chemical compound or multiple chemical compounds. Particles formed by this latter process come from the reaction of elemental carbon (soot), heavy metals, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds with water and other compounds in the atmosphere. 56 Burning fossil fuels in factories, power plants, diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles (cars and trucks) and equipment generate a large part of the raw materials for fine particles. Other sources include burning wood in residential fireplaces and wood stoves or wildfires.
With so many sources of particles, researchers want to know if some particles pose greater risk than others. Researchers are exploring possible differences in health effects of the sizes of particles and particles from different sources, such as diesel particles from trucks and buses or sulfates from coal-fired power plants. Recent studies have tried to answer this question. So far, the answers are complicated.
Each particle may have many different components. The building blocks of each can include several biological and chemical components. Bacteria, pollen and other biological ingredients can combine in the particle with chemical agents, such as heavy metals, elemental carbon, dust and secondary species like sulfates and nitrates. These combinations mean that particles can have complex effects on the body.57
Some studies have found different kinds of particles may have greater risk for different health outcomes.58,59,60
Other studies have identified the challenges of exploring all the kinds of particles and their health effects with the limited monitoring across the nation.61 Some particles serve as carriers for other chemicals that are also toxic, so determining which are the most toxic remains hard.62
The best evidence shows that having less of all types of particles in the air leads to better health and longer lives.
- U.S. EPA. Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-08/139F, 2009. Available at http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=216546.
- U.S. EPA. Air Quality Criteria for Particulate Matter, October 2004. Available at http://cfpub2.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=87903.
- U.S. EPA, 2009.
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- Zanobetti A, Schwartz J. Are Diabetics More Susceptible to the Health Effects of Airborne Particles? Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2001; 164: 831-833. National Research Council. Research Priorities for Airborne Particulate Matter: IV. Continuing Research Progress. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004.
- Ostro B, Broadwin R, Green S, Feng WY, Lipsett M. Fine particulate air pollution and mortality in nine California counties: results from CALFINE. Environ Health Perspect. 2006: 114: 29-33; Ostro B, Feng WY, Broadwin R, Malig B, Green S, Lipsett M. The Impact of Components of Fine Particulate Matter on Cardiovascular Mortality in Susceptible Subpopulations. Occup Environ Med. 2008; 65(11): 750-756.
- U.S. EPA, 2009.
- Miller, 2007; O’Neill MS, Veves A, Zanobetti A, Sarnat JA, Gold DR, Economides PA, Horton ES, Schwartz J. Diabetes Enhances Vulnerability to Particulate Air Pollution-Associated Impairment in Vascular Reactivity and Endothelial Function. Circulation. 2005; 111: 2913-2920;
- Eckel SP, Cockburn M, Shu Y-H, et al. F. Air pollution affects lung cancer survival. Thorax. 2016: 71: 891-898
- .Correia AW, Pope CA III, Dockery DW, Wang Y, Ezzati M, Domenici F. Effect of Air Pollution Control on Life Expectancy in the United States: An Analysis of 545 U.S. Counties for the Period from 2000 to 2007. Epidemiology. 2013; 24(1): 23-31.
- Lepeule J, Laden F, Docker D, Schwartz J. Chronic Exposure to Fine Particles and Mortality: An Extended Follow-up of the Harvard Six Cities Study from 1974 to 2009. Environ Health Perspect. 2012; 120: 965-970.
- Schwartz J, Coull B, Laden F, Ryan L. The Effect of Dose and Timing of Dose on the Association between Airborne Particles and Survival. Environ Health Perspect. 2008; 116: 64-69.
- Zanobetti A, Schwartz J, Samoli E, Gryparis A, Tuoloumi G, Peacock J, Anderson RH, Le Tertre A, Bobros J, Celko M, Goren A, Forsberg B, Michelozzi P, Rabczenko D, Perez Hoyos S, Wichmann HE, Katsouyanni K. The Temporal Pattern of Respiratory and Heart Disease Mortality in Response to Air Pollution. Environ Health Perspect. 2003; 111:1188-1193; Dominici F, McDermott A, Zeger SL, Samet JM. Airborne Particulate Matter and Mortality: Timescale Effects in Four US Cities. Am J Epidemiol. 2003; 157: 1055-1065.
- Shi L, Zanobetti A, Kloog I, Coull BA, Koutrakis P, Melly SJ, Schwartz JD. Low-concentration PM2.5 and mortality: estimating acute and chronic effects in a population-based study. Environ Health Perspect. 2016; 124:46–52; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1409111
- Schwartz J, Bind MA, Koutrakis P. Estimating causal effects of local air pollution on daily deaths: Effect of low levels. Environ Health Perspect. 2017; 125:23-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/EHP232
- Di Q, Dai L, Wang Y, Zanobetti A, Choirat C, Schwartz JD, Dominici F. Association of Short-Term Exposure to Air Pollution with Mortality in Older Adults. JAMA. 2017; 318: 2446-2456.
- Dominici F, McDermott A, Zeger SL, Samet JM. On the Use of Generalized Additive Models in Time-Series Studies of Air Pollution and Health. Am J Epidemiol. 2002; 156: 193-203.
- Hong Y-C, Lee J-T, Kim H, Ha E-H, Schwartz J, Christiani DC. Effects of Air Pollutants on Acute Stroke Mortality. Environ Health Perspect. 2002; 110: 187-191.
- Tsai SS, Goggins WB, Chiu HF, Yang CY. Evidence for an Association Between Air Pollution and Daily Stroke Admissions in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Stroke. 2003; 34: 2612-2616.
- Wellenius GA, Schwartz J, Mittleman MA. Air Pollution and Hospital Admissions for Ischemic and Hemorrhagic Stroke Among Medicare Beneficiaries. Stroke. 2005; 36: 2549-2553.
- Pope and Dockery, 2006.
- D’Ippoliti D, Forastiere F, Ancona C, Agabity N, Fusco D, Michelozzi P, Perucci CA. Air Pollution and Myocardial Infarction in Rome: a case-crossover analysis. Epidemiology. 2003; 14: 528-535. Zanobetti A, Schwartz J. The Effect of Particulate Air Pollution on Emergency Admissions for Myocardial Infarction: a multicity case-crossover analysis. Environ Health Perspect. 2005; 113: 978-982.
- Ghio AJ, Kim C, Devlin RB. Concentrated Ambient Air Particles Induce Mild Pulmonary Inflammation in Healthy Human Volunteers. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2000; 162(3 Pt 1): 981-988.
- Metzger KB, Tolbert PE, Klein M, Peel JL, Flanders WD, Todd K, Mulholland JA, Ryan PB, Frumkin H. Ambient Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Emergency Department Visits in Atlanta, Georgia, 1993-2000. Epidemiology. 2004; 15: 46-56.
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- Wellenius GA, Schwartz J, Mittleman MA. Particulate Air Pollution and Hospital Admissions for Congestive Heart Failure in Seven United States Cities. Am J Cardiol. 2006; 97 (3): 404-408; Wellenius GA, Bateson TF, Mittleman MA, Schwartz J. Particulate Air Pollution and the Rate of Hospitalization for Congestive Heart Failure among Medicare Beneficiaries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Am J Epidem. 2005; 161: 1030-1036.
- Van Den Eeden SK, Quesenberry CP Jr, Shan J, Lurmann F. Particulate Air Pollution and Morbidity in the California Central Valley: a high particulate pollution region. Final Report to the California Air Resources Board, 2002.
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- Tolbert PE, Mulholland JA, MacIntosh DD, Xu F, Daniels D, Devine OJ, Carlin BP, Klein M, Dorley J, Butler AJ, Nordenberg DF, Frumkin H, Ryan PB, White MC. Air Quality and Pediatric Emergency Room Visits for Asthma in Atlanta, Georgia. Am J Epidemiol. 2000; 151: 798-810.
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- Thaller EI, Petronell SA, Hochman D, Howard S, Chhikara RS, Brooks EG. Moderate Increases in Ambient PM 2.5 and Ozone Are Associated With Lung Function Decreases in Beach Lifeguards. J Occp Environ Med. 2008; 50: 202-211.
- Dockery DW, Pope CA III, Xu X, Spengler JD, Ware JH, Fay ME, Ferris BG, Speizer FE. An Association Between Air Pollution and Mortality in Six U.S. Cities. N Engl J Med. 1993; 329: 1753-1759. Pope CA, Thun MJ, Namboodiri MM, Dockery DW, Evans JS, Speizer FE, Heath CW. Particulate Air Pollution as a Predictor of Mortality in a Prospective Study of U.S. Adults. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1995; 151: 669-674.
- Zanobetti A, Schwartz J. The effect of fine and coarse particulate air pollution on mortality: A national analysis. Environ Health Perspect. 2009; 117: 1-40 2009; Krewski D, Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Ma R, Hughes E, Shi Y, Turner MC, Pope AC III, Thurston G, Calle EE, Thun MJ. Extended follow-up and spatial analysis of the American Cancer Society study linking particulate air pollution and mortality. Report No. 140 (Cambridge, MA: Health Effects Institute, 2009); Franklin M, Zeka A, Schwartz J. Association between PM2.5 and all-cause and specific cause mortality in 27 U.S. communities. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2007; 18: 1005-1011. 2007; Lepeule, et al., 2012; Pope CA III, Burnett RT, Thun MJ, Calle EE, Krewski D, Ito K, Thurston GD. Lung Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Mortality, and Long-Term Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution. JAMA. 2002; 287(9): 1132-1141.
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- Thurston GD, Burnett RT, Turner MC, Shi Y, Krewski D, Lall R, Ito K, Jerrett M, Gapstur SM, Diver WR, Pope CA III. Ischemic Heart Disease Mortality and Long-Term Exposure to Source-Related Components of U.S. Fine Particle Air Pollution. Environ Health Perspect; 2016: 124:785–794. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1509777
- Bell ML, Ebisu K, Leaderer BP, Gent JF, Lee HJ, Koutrakis P, Wang Y, Dominici F, Peng RD. Associations of PM2.5 constituents and sources with hospital admissions: analysis of four counties in Connecticut and Massachusetts (USA) for persons ≥ 65 years of age. Environ Health Perspect. 2014: 122: 138–144; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306656
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Stay indoors: People living close to the fire-stricken areas should remain indoors and avoid breathing smoke, ashes and other pollution in the area.
Don’t count on a dust mask: Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters or an N-95 will filter out the damaging fine particles, but may not fit properly and are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.
Take precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke. Their lungs are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) for their size than adults.
Roll up your car windows: When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the “recirculate” setting.
Protect the air in your home: Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting to keep from pulling outside air into the room. Air cleaning devices that have HEPA filters can provide added protection from the soot and smoke. Place damp towels under the doors and other places where the outside air may leak in.
Prepare to evacuate if directed. Listen to your local or state officials and protect yourself and your family.
Don’t exercise outside: If you live close to or in the surrounding area, don’t exercise outdoors, especially if you smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.