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Particulate Matter: This Air Pollutant Devastating Health Effects (+Remarkable Remedies)

Oct 27, 2018

Summary

Let me introduce you to a very vicious killer on this planet: particulate matter. If you've never heard about particulate matter you should - let me tell you why.

In 2016, just over 100,000 people died because of armed conflicts.

Mortality because of particulate matter?

800,000 deaths are directly attributable to particulate matter, and 6.4 million people die sooner than they should because of the substance.

Those statistics should tell you why particulate matter is not a side-issue.

If the numbers displayed above make you pissed, that's great...

I got the exact same response.

Contrary to what you've been told, it's not drinking alcohol that's killing you sooner, or not moving enough. Of course, drinking lots of alcohol and sitting on the couch all day does contribute to poor health, but particulate matter just as big if not a bigger problem.

Yes, I know you won't believe that particulate matter exposure is more damaging than not moving, and yet, it's true.

The most probable reason you don't hear health institutions talk about the negative health effects of particulate matter all the time is because emitting that substance is hard to control.

It's simple for the government to tell you that you should move more--but it's not easy to recommend you avoid particulate matter exposure because that stuff is everywhere.

Why?

Road vehicles, industry, burning coal or wood for energy, airplanes, and air pollution that chemically reacts in the sky are common sources of particulate matter.

The creation of particulate matter is thus intertwined with the nature of modern societies.


Nature creates particulate matter too, although most of 
your exposure in modern society comes from humanly created sources.

 

You might be thinking: "so what's particulate matter in the first place?"

Let me tell you...

Particulate matter are very tiny particles that are subsumed in the air. By breathing that air, these tiny particles end up in your body - these particles are transferred to your lungs, bloodstream, and even your brain.

Particulate matter consists of both liquid and solid particles and have different sizes and chemical makeups. The size (measured in diameters) of particulate matter is expressed in "micrometers" or "microns".

One micrometer is a thousand times as small as a millimeter.

Common measurement standards of particulate matter are those with sizes up to 10 micrometers (PM10), 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), and 0.1 micrometers (PM0.1).

To give an example, PM2.5 thus contains particles with sizes above 0 and up to 2.5 micrometers.

And yes, 2.5 micrometers is insanely small compared to the measurements most people use in their daily lives. A hair on your head, for example, has a diameter that is 30 times as big a PM2.5 pollutant.

So, let's explore why you should care about this vicious but silent killer...

Getting exposed to particulate matter is bad business for your health, as your:

  • risk for getting lung diseases such as asthma, and airway problems dramatically increases the more particulate matter you breathe in. Dealing with lung and airway problems also becomes more difficult.

  • heart health and blood vessels will be degraded. As a result, your chance for getting a heart attack or stroke increases. 

  • body literally creates stress hormones the more particulate matter you're exposed to. "Cortisol" and "adrenaline" are examples of such stress hormones.

  • risk for getting brain diseases, especially under the influence of the very small particles (PM0.1) goes up - although this effect is still somewhat scientifically contested.

  • body's cells, and even the "energy producing factories" in your cells called "mitochondria", are damaged.

    The more particulate matter you're exposed to, the more cells are damaged and the greater the increased of inflammation your body experiences. Inflammation underlies many modern diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Guess what? Particulate matter exposure also makes you more prone to be diabetic.

If you're young, old, or already have heart disease or lung problems, you'll be especially susceptible to the health-degrading effects of particulate matter.


"Why were you so stupid to live in polluted 
cities, human?"

 

To dramatically reduce your overall particulate matter exposure, I've developed a 3-step strategy.

Yes I'm helping you move beyond the gloom and doom I've expressed earlier...

The first step of the strategy is to gain insight in how much particulate matter you're exposed to on a daily basis. 

To gain insight you'll need to do take two actions:

  1. Take a look at a worldwide map that contains real-time information about the air pollution levels in your environment.

    That map will only give you a general impression of the particulate matter you're exposed to on a daily basis. You'll also observe that there are almost no safe areas on the planet if you live in a city in the "civilized" world.

  2. Next, you'll need to measure your unique particulate matter exposure pattern with an air quality detector. 

    You can buy a budget version that does not measure that many air quality variables (but included PM2.5), or you can buy a higher-end version that gives you more data.

    Because particulate matter levels in the air vary with season, location, time of the day, weather, and because of many more circumstances, it's best to measure your particulate matter exposure levels per hour at different locations you're spending your daily time.

    With many data points, you'll get insight into your exposure level. Once you gain insight into your exposure levels, you can deal with the problem.

So what if our exposure levels are really high?

In that case, move to the next step:

The second step of the particulate matter reduction strategy is to consider whether you can and should use an air purifier at your location.

You only need an air purifier if you spend lots of time in the same location...

To make sure you get the best air purifier for the lowest price, I've combined the data of seven different consumer reports on air purifiers, which led to a top three of products.

(my complete methodology is readable in the full blog post.)

The top three products air purifiers with filters to remove particulate matter from your location are:

  1. Coway AP-1512HH, scoring 40 points in total.


    This air purifier costs $205, filters 530 square feet (50 m2). The big upsides about this air purifier is that it filters as effectively as many air purifiers that cost three times as much, remains very effective over time, and that filter replacement costs very little.

    Even the model looks good...

  2. Winix 5300 or 5500 at 36 points.


    The Winix air purifier costs $145, filters 360 square feet (33m2). While this air purifier is somewhat inexpensive compared to the number one air purifier, filter replacements are more expensive.

    The upside is that this air purifier is easy to maintain for non-tech-savy people - this one is perfect for non-geeks.

  3. Honeywell HPA300, with 27 points. 


    This Honeywell purifier costs $195, and filters 465 square feet (43m2), 

    Filter replacements are more expensive for this air purifier as well. The big upside about this air purifier is that it's quiet and filters allergens very well.

Short on money?

I've got a solution:

The Germguardian, priced around $100 and scoring 26 points, is the best budget option out there: 

This air purifier filters 200 square feet (18m2), and is ideal for smaller locations such as a bedroom - noise levels are also low for this product.

The downside is that filter replacements are more expensive for this air purifier.

For 1) filtering bigger rooms or 2) if you're more prone to be negatively affected by particulate matter because you're very young, old, or have heart or lung disease, then you might want to opt for maximum filtering efficiency.

Two great options exist in that case:

  1. Alen BreatheSmart 75i

    This Breathesmart comes with lifetime guarantee, is energy efficient, filters up to 1,300 square feet (120m2), and costs $759. The most important reason for buying this air purifier is that the noise output is very low compared to other air purifiers. The effectiveness of this air purifier is extremely high.

  2. Coway Airmega 400

    Filtering 1560 square feet (140m2), and priced at $566, this Coway Airmega air purifier is perfect for daytime used in bigger rooms or if you've got lung or heart problems (and exposed to lots of particulate matter)

(This list was last updated on October 24th, 2018.)

one disclaimer: keep your body at a 6 feet (roughly 2 meter) distance from the air purifier to prevent exposing yourself from electromagnetic fields. So do not place an air purifier directly next to your bed.

That's it...

The most highly recommended air purifiers on the market right now. Please remember that my reviews in the full blog post are much more in depth.

But I'm not done yet: remember I'm laying out a three-step strategy:

The third part of my particulate matter reduction strategy is to layer assorted approaches to further reduce your overall exposure level.

Why?

Well, if you're getting exposed to lots of particulate matter during your commute an air purifier will generally not help you - other scenarios in which it's hard to use air purifiers also exist.

You may need to:

  • change your commute timing to reduce your overall particulate matter exposure.
  • move to another part of the city, to reduce your exposure levels 10-fold (yes, that's really possible sometimes).
  • improve your overall diet and get more sunlight exposure so that your body detoxes particulate matter more adequately.
  • plant lots of particulate matter absorbing vegetation on and near your house to dramatically reduce your exposure.

In fact, eight different strategies to further reduce particulate matter exposure are laid out in this full blog post.

That's it: all you need to know about the basics of particulate matter.

Please keep in mind that this is not a pessimistic article that tells you you cannot control your exposure at all.

By just using air purifiers alone, you can reduce particulate mater epxoure up to 80%. By adding other strategies on top of that, you may even reach a 90-95% reduction, dramatically cutting your risk for lung problems, heart disease, and cancer.

Yes, you may need to make changes to your life, but you can do it. You fully deserve it...

(By the way, instead of focusing on air pollution in general, this blog post only considers what is called "particulate matter". The next blog post will treat air pollution in general - which is somewhat more complex.)

Don't be bogged down by the complexity of this subject.

While this particulate matter blog post is roughly 22,500 words long, I'm telling you exactly how you can deal with this (potential) problem.

Want to know what to do right now to decrease your risks?

 

 

PARTICULATE MATTER: THIS AIR POLLUTANT'S DEVASTATING HEALTH EFFECTS (+REMARKABLE REMEDIES)

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Table Of Contents

Particulate Matter Basics:

1. Introduction: What Is Particulate Matter?
2. Different Types Of Particulate Matter: PM2.5, PM10, and PM0.1
3. How Inhaling Particulate Matter Affects Your Airways, Lungs, And Health

Particulate Matter Exposure Health Consequences:

4. Scientifically-Proven Health Effects Of Particulate Matter Exposure

Controlling Particulate Matter Levels:

5. Testing Air Quality: Particulate Matter Levels
6. Particulate Matter Air Purifier Guide 
7. Eight Additional Particulate Matter Harm-Reduction Strategies

The 30,000-Foot View On Particulate Matter Pollution:

8. Particulate Matter - An Ethical And Political Analysis
9. Conclusion: Control Particulate Matter Insofar You Can



*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.

Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy, Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).



1. INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS PARTICULATE MATTER?

Particulate matter - a form of air pollution - can be devastating for your health over time.

You may be thinking, however:

"Are you fear mongering again?"

"Another long technical article that takes a long time to read but doesn't offer much practical advise?"

"Air pollution? I can't do anything about that anyway, so why worry? We all die someday, so no need to worry about air quality.

All these questions are misguided.

Let me tell you why:

First of all, yes, I'm fear mongering but I've got good reasons to do so - you'll learn why in a second. Secondly, even though I'm fear mongering I will offer you tons of practical advise to improve your exposure to this air pollutant. And thirdly, your air quality can and will affect the quality of the time you spend here on this planet - reducing exposure will improve health.

So let's get to it and break down the topic of "particulate matter". I'll start with an analogy to understand why this topic can be so counter-intuitive for many people...

That analogy starts with light:

When I'm talking about health, people often think it's very weird that the light in their environment matters for their health.

I've often suggested people to use sunlight or red light therapy for dealing with pain, for example, and yet, some people are unwilling to listen to that advice. 

Keep in mind that I'm not saying you are unwilling to listen to that advice, but please accept that just some people are.

The same is true for wearing blue blocker glasses after sunset: many people are unwilling or unable to believe that light exposure after sunset affects their sleep quality, simply because many "reputable" institutions or television programs don't put out that recommendation.

Air pollution is exactly like light...

Many people already believe that air pollution - specifically "particulate matter" which I'm treating in this blog post - just cannot have enormous health effects. 

Why?

Well, if particulate matter exposure did have enormous health effects you'd hear experts talking about the subject all the time, right?

And yet, the opposite is true - particulate matter exposure does have enormous health effects. Simple statistics confirm the often held invalid conclusion that it does not:[2-4; 206; 216] 

Bombshell?

Just one type of particulate matter, called "PM2.5", leads to 800,000 deaths on a worldwide basis every year

In total, 6,4 million years are taken from people's maximum lifespans due to exposure to that "PM2,5". 

Most of that damage actually occur in Asia. 

On a worldwide scale, air pollution--not restricted to particulate matter--caused 4.2 million deaths in 2016.

The problem gets worse:

Billions of people have their lives negatively impacted by air pollution and particulate matter every year. All-in-all, particulate matter is the 13th leading cause of death in the world.

The assumption that air pollution does not affect your health is plain wrong. Particulate matter acts like a slow poison drip that's plugged into your body.

Just imagine that someone adds a tiny bit of poison to your food over time. You won't even be able to perceive that your food tastes differently, because the change is so subtle.

And yet, even though you don't directly perceive more and more poison being added to your body, the damage is still being done. 

Again: am I preaching doom and gloom?

Not at all...

The good news is that air quality is getting better in some regions of the world, such as the US and Europe. The bad news is that pollutants levels are still so high that health problems are still caused by them - and will be caused by them decades down the road.

Phrased differently, the air around you is not improving quickly enough so that you can reasonably expect that we'll have clean air in 10 or 20 years time. You thus have to take matters into your own hands.


Northern Scandinavia: one of the few places
on the planet without much air pollution...


There's another problem:

The human safety levels of many environmental toxins have gone down over time. An example is that the "safe" levels for lead exposure - a heavy metal - has been going down for decades.

Particulate matter is the same.

Different institutions such as the World Health Organization and the European Union (EU) have different safety standards.

Even though safe exposure levels recommended by these institutions have been coming down, you can't assume that they are currently strict enough. It can thus reasonably be expected that the maximum exposure levels of particulate matter may go down further over time.

Claims actually exist that there are no safe levels of particulate matter exposure. In other words, the more particulate matter enters your body, the worse the health effects will be.

Of course, there's still the elephant in the room: the topic of air pollution is really abstract for many people. 

Let's, therefore, consider what particulate matter really is - making the topic more concrete to you...

Particle matter air pollution is often called "particle pollution" as well.

Particulate matter consists of small particles that are dangling in the air. Those particles can both be liquid and solid. There are many examples of particulate matter:

  • Smoke from cigarettes or tobacco
  • Dust that can, for example, be emitted as a byproduct of the cement industry
  • "Fly ash", which can be a byproduct of coal energy production
  • "Soot", a black powder that's a byproduct of petroleum or benzene combustion, or "oil smoke".
  • Smog, which you're probably acquainted with.

You get the point...

Just imagine that a tremendous amount of invisible tiny particles are suspended in the air that you breathe every second. 

That pollutant is mostly emitted into the air as a result of our modern lifestyles. 

Different types of particulate matter exist, and these types are mainly categorized by size:

The key to understanding particulate matter is to realize these particles are very small.

Yes, really small...

How small?

Particulate matter often has the size of 2.5 millionth of a meter or 10 millionth of a meter. To give you a point of reference, 1 millionth of a meter is a thousand times as small as a millimeter.

Some types of particulate matter, such as smog, may even be of the size of a tenth of a micrometer - 10,000 times as small as a millimeter.

From now on I'll use the term "micrometer" to refer to a millionth of a meter - another commonly used term for "micrometers" is "microns". 

It's not just cars or industry that produce air pollution. Some airborne substances, such as allergens, which trigger people who are allergic to dogs or cats, have roughly have the same size.[7-10]

Viruses and bacteria are also very small, ranging from a 1/100th of a micrometer to 10 micrometers (which is a huge range, I know...)

To give you a frame of reference, let's consider how small particulate matter generally is...

The diameter of 2.5-micrometer particulate matter is 30 times as small as the diameter of a human hair. 2.5 micrometers are unobservable to the human eye.

And keep in mind that 2.5-micrometer particles are still relatively large compared to much even smaller substances such as tobacco smoke and dust, which can both be smaller than 1 micrometer.

Because these tiny particles affect your health so thoroughly, institutions try to regulate their expulsion into the air

It's not just particulate matter emissions that are regulated though. Government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US, regulate six different airborne chemicals. 

Particulate matter is just one of these chemicals.[16; 17]



(Nerd section: the EPA also regulates carbon monoxide (CO), lead (Pb), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and sulfur dioxide (SO2).



Oh yeah, you must be thinking about how you are doing regarding these chemicals.

In that case I've got a surprise...

Let's take a quick de-tour:

Before I'll help you understand particulate matter on a much deeper level, please get a general impression of the the pollution levels at your location by checking this map.

That map gives you an "air quality index", which is used by many governments to inform their inhabitants about the air quality in their living environment. 

Knowing the air quality status of your environment can bring the problem of air pollution much more alive if you have trouble imagining such tiny particles.

So let's take Paris...

Paris is relatively close to where I'm living and has a huge air quality problem because of the many cars passing through the city.

Just look at the image below:

Visiting Paris will be "romantic", they said...

 

And the map I mentioned before, that displays worldwide air quality levels, actually reflects what you're seeing on that picture.

As of October 16th, 2018, the moment I'm writing this blog post, the air quality index in Paris is around 24-70.

My place? 

The Eastern part of the Netherlands consistently hits the low 20s and is thus (relatively) safe.

As a point of reference, some areas with an extremely low population density have an air quality index of between 2 and 10 - desolate locations in Sweden or Finland come to mind...

So what's the solution if your location is polluted?

If you're thinking "I'll just stay inside to avoid all the pollution" then you're misguided.

Indoor quantities of air pollutants can be ten as high as outdoor.[11] One reason for that distribution is that outdoor air often enters buildings, but many people don't let their indoor air ventilate. 

In other words, air pollutants thus enter many buildings but never exit them. Many modern objects such as furniture also lower the indoor air quality even further.

Indoor air pollution gets more problematic because the average person spends up to 90% of their day inside.[12] Another reason you cannot stay inside all the time is that you'd miss out on sunlight - I consider sunlight essential for health.

Staying inside 24-7 to avoid air pollution is thus not a good health strategy...

But let's go back to the topic of particulate matter. The smaller the size of particles, in general, the more damaging they will be.

Particulate matter with the size of 2.5 micrometers is thus more damaging than particulate matter with the size of 10 micrometers.

Why?

Bigger particles are easier to filter larger through the airways - more on that topic later.

So why spend an entire massive blog post on particulate matter alone?

Why don't I talk about air pollution in general?

The main reason for focusing primarily on particulate matter first is that particulate matter is most strongly associated with different diseases of all types of air pollution.

Particulate matter was not always the primary air pollutant though...

The "Valley Fog" in Meuse, Belgium, in 1930, and "the great smog of London" of 1952 and are notorious air pollution incidents.[13; 14] An air pollutant called "sulfur dioxide" was the culprit in these cases...

The Belgian instance led to 60 deaths and thousands of people who became sick--in the English instance, more than 6,000 people died due to the direct and indirect consequences of that air pollution.

The great smog of London was a wake-up call and led to a wave of legislation to reduce air pollution in Western societies.

Air pollution scandals are not restricted to European and North American countries though: the 2013 Harbin smog in China is a more recent notorious air pollution event. In that case, particulate matter was the main culprit.[15] 

Of course, air pollution problems are much older than the 20th century.

Before the 20th century, if you were working in a coal mine you were exposed to horrendous amounts of (particulate matter) pollution. 

Even in pre-history, your ancestors would be temporarily exposed to lots of particulate matter. Camp or forest fires, or the occasional volcano eruptions are examples thereof.

The problem with particulate matter exposure is not that it is new for humans--the problem is that air pollution has become omnipresent and (almost) inescapable.

So what's the solution?

Simple: read this full blog post.

I'll tell you everything you need to know to reduce your risks and reclaim your health - it's going to be a somewhat long ride, but in the end, you'll learn how you can cut your expose levels by 50-90%.

In the next section, I'll lay the groundwork and tell you explain what different types of particulate matter exist...



(Nerd section: if you've been reading my blog you know that I'm very keen on giving definitions at the beginning of articles, so that I'm sure you and I are talking about the same thing when you're reading my articles. In the case of air pollution, it's more difficult to give strict definitions because hundreds of chemicals are subsumed in the air. A few of these chemicals, such as particulate matter, tropospheric ozone, and sulfur dioxide, act as a benchmark for air pollutants in general. It's impossible to measure all air pollutants in existence because there are thousands if not tens of thousands of possible categories. Air pollutant levels  also fluctuate throughout the year and are specific to locations, and there's no one size fits all measurement that can be generalized, either spatially or temporally.)



 

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2. DIFFERENT TYPES OF PARTICULATE MATTER: PM2.5, PM10.0, AND PM0.1

Understanding the different types of particulate matter is important because not all types have the same health consequences.

Remember that particulate matter can consist of both solid and liquid particles that are suspended into the air. Particulate matter can actually consist of hundreds of diverging chemical elements.

For that reason there's no "one size fits all" approach to understanding how particular matter is chemically made up.

The size of these particles is another story - size is easier to standardize. It's important to understand how the particulate matter scale works.

The particulate matter scale exclusively considers the size of particles and not their chemical constituents. Sizes of particles are expressed as PM10, PM2.5, and PM0.1.

Let me explain...

  • PM10 contains particles with sizes smaller than 10 micrometers. In other words, PM10 contains particles between 0 and 10 micrometers in size (nerds: diameter)
  • PM2.5 contains all particles with sizes smaller than 2.5 micrometers, and thus, all particles with the size of 0 to 2.5 micrometers.
  • PM0.1, lastly, are the really small particles that, you guessed it, have a diameter of up to 0.1 micrometers. 

Consequence?

PM10 also includes the particles that are contained within the PM2.5 and PM0.1 categories because of the way the scale is built up.

In the EU, for example, 70% of all PM10 particles are actually PM2.5 particles,.[28] Phrased different, only 30% of PM10 particles have a diameter of 2.5 to 10 micrometers.

As a logical consequence of how the scale is built up, PM2.5 also contains all PM0.1 particles because PM2.5 contains all particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, and thus also PM0.1 sized particles as well.

You get the drill...

Different types of particulate matter go by the following names:

  • PM10 is called "coarse"
  • PM2.5 is called "fine"
  • PM0.1 is called "ultrafine"

That was simple: all you need to know about size. 

Let's now consider why most inhabited places of this planet are engulfed with clouds of particulate matter. 

Particulate matter can be formed in several ways. 

The first way is when particulate matter is formed as a direct byproduct from fuel usage, industry, or other environmental sources - this type is called "primary particulate matter".

Examples of primary particulate matter are combustion by several types of engines (including petrol and diesel), or using coal or biomass for energy creation.

"Primary particulate matter" can also form as a result of slow damage that occurs to infrastructure over time, such as roads, and as a byproduct several industries.

If you're a metalworker, for example, certain chemical compounds such as nickel, lead, and arsenic can be emitted into the air and can eventually end up in your body. The creation of cement or mining are examples industrial processes creating particulate matter pollution.

Even indoor cooking and heating can create particulate matter - which frequently occurs in developing countries. 

Wood combustion in residential areas is also a frequent source of primary particulate matter pollution.

Interesting fact: cars don't just put off particulate matter through their emissions - using your brakes, for example, can also emit chemicals into the air from your tires and brake mechanism.

Yes, that toxic stuff is everywhere...


Campfires: avoid standing in the smoke to reduce
the negative health effects...

Nevertheless, deserts and volcanoes are also natural sources of particulate matter. Not all particulate matter is thus created by human beings. Deserts, for example, can supply lots of dust that's carried through the air for very long distances.

For that reason, desert areas such as Saharan Africa, locations around Saudi Arabia and regions in central Asia end up with very high particulate matter concentrations.

But there's yet another particulate matter source:

The second way particulate matter is formed is due to chemical reactions in the atmosphere - called "secondary particulate matter".

Examples are gasses that are emitted as a by-process of energy creation which can result in the formation of particulate matter in the air. Gases emitted by traffic are another example.

Humans are the main reason why secondary particulate matter exists.

Because the air is nowadays being filled with gases and particles, chemical reactions in the air create additional chemical configurations that results in new particulate matter.

But let's go back to the different sizes of particles: PM10, PM2.5, and PM0.1

What happens with these particles once they're emitted?

The smaller the particle, the longer particles stay suspended in the air. Smaller particles can thus travel longer distances.

Particles close to 10 micrometers (PM10), for example, can travel up to 20-30 miles and (generally) stay in the air for a few hours.

Smaller particles below the 2.5 micrometers size (PM2.5), on the contrary, can stay in the air for weeks and travel for hundreds of miles. PM2.5 can even cross continents and oceans...

Bigger is thus not better (in this regard)...



(Nerd section: I know the Aristotelian thesis that heavier objects react differently to gravity than lighter ones has been solidly debunked since Galileo. The issue with the travel distance of particles, however, does not have to do with gravity but with air resistance. To give an analogy: a feather, due to its low weight, is easily affected by air resistance, while cannonballs are not. PM10 is, therefore, less easily affected by air resistance than PM2.5 or PM0.1.)



Now, you might be thinking: "what about particles that are larger than 10 micrometers?"

Great question.

Such particles are not regulated because in that case, governments would have to start regulating the sand that's emitted into the air. Larger particles also have fewer health effects, and regulation is therefore not that necessary.

But let's move to another topic:

In addition to the size of the particles, institutions also measure how many particles are subsumed in the air and their weight:

Let's thus consider in what metric the air's particulate matter levels are measured.

The levels of particulate matter are measured in micrograms per cubic meter. A cubic meter is a three-dimensional area with a length, width, height of one meter.

You can have a particulate matter concentration of 2 micrograms per cubic meter (m3), for example, or a level of 35 micrograms per m3

More micrograms per mgenerally entail that you're breathing in more particles. And more particulate matter subsumed in the air means you'll experience worse health consequences.

To minimize the negative health effects, institutions all over the world have developed guidelines on how much particulate matter are allowed to be contained in the air.

Let's explore maximum PM2.5 and PM10 levels set by different institutions.[18-23]

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set following maximal exposure levels:

  • Sourced from primary PM2.5, you're allowed to have an annualized average of 12 micrograms per m3 exposure level.
  • From secondary PM2.5 sources (chemical reactions in the air), the maximum level is located at 15 micrograms per m- averaged over the year.
  • The combined level of primary and secondary exposure is located at 35 micrograms per m3.
  • PM10 levels may not exceed 150 micrograms per m3 on a 24-hour basis for more than once per year. In other words, if you're exposed to a 160 and 180 micrograms level of PM10 per m3 on two different days in a single year, you've exceeded the EPA's safety levels.

How about the EU? As always, the EU has somewhat stricter qua environmental policies compared to the US:

  • The combined primary and secondary exposure to PM2.5 is located at 25 micrograms per m(as opposed to 35 in the US). That number is averaged over a year.
  • On a 24-hour basis, maximum PM10 levels may not exceed 50 micrograms per m(merely a third of the maximum US threshold). The annualized average of PM10 exposure may not exceed 40 micrograms per m3.

 Then there's the WHO. The WHO is even more strict:

  • Maximal PM2.5 exposure levels are just 10 micrograms per m3, on an annual average, while the 24-hour maximum is located at 25 micrograms per m3.
  • For PM10, the annualized maximum average exposure level is 20 micrograms per m3, while the 24-hour maximum exposure level is 50 micrograms per m3.

Please observe that the WHO's averaged PM2.5 exposure standard is three times as strict as US policy.

There's a problem though...

Even if you're living in a Western European country - these countries are often considered "clean" on a worldwide basis - you won't get close to these WHO-mandated maximum exposure standards.[28] 


Paris: clean but not so clean...

 

Your health is thus almost certainly affected by particulate matter no matter where you live unless you're living on the North pole or Amazonian rain forest... 

Don't be fooled by the thresholds of governments and health institutions: even your location matches these standards, you're still not safe.

Let me explain:

Even if you're exposed to an average of 5 micrograms per m3 on annual basis your health is still being damaged, even though you're only exposed to half the particulate matter the WHO recommends as a maximum.

How about a 2.5 micrograms per m3 exposure level?

In that case, the damage will be less than when you get exposed to 5 micrograms per m3, but your health is still damaged.[28]

Simply put: less particulate matter exposure is always better. There's no known safe exposure level.

Less is more...

The next step in my argument is to understand how particulate matter works in your body. By understanding how particulate matter ends up there, you can easier imagine why it was such widespread health effects...

 

 

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3. HOW INHALING PARTICULATE MATTER AFFECTS YOUR AIRWAYS, LUNGS, AND HEALTH

Getting exposed to all the particulate matter in the world would not really matter if these substances never ended up in your body. That toxic stuff does end up in your body, however, and causes health problems.

The question is, of course: "how does particulate matter get there?"

The answer to that question is, unfortunately, not fully known yet. The upside (or perhaps downside) is that many different mechanisms have been found.

What is known, from rat studies, for example, is that part of the PM2.5 you inhale sticks to the "epithelium" of your lungs.[168] Epithelium cells make up the inner linings of your lungs where air is exchanged.[331]

In rat studies, the bacterial colonies in the airways also altered by particulate matter as well.[333] When the wrong bacteria are located in air airways or lungs, you'll have higher risks for getting infections--millions of people die yearly due to airway infections...

Human autopsies also demonstrate that if you're exposed to lots of particulate matter these substances can be found in your lungs after death.[169] 

It can thus be definitively concluded that particulate matter does end up in your airways and lungs - the only question is precisely how...

In fact, about 1% of the particular matter you inhale even ends up in your blood.[170]

How?

PM2.5, because it is smaller than PM10, can penetrate up until the lung sacs - called "alveoli" - the location where blood exchanges oxygen in the lungs.

Your lungs transfer oxygen from outside your body to your blood and remove excess carbon dioxide (CO2). Problems emerge when you're breathing in fine particles, as some of these particles are thus exchanged with your blood together with oxygen and CO2.

Fortunately, you've got what is called a "lymphatic system". That lymphatic system filters your blood, removing some particulate matter found therein. The lymphatic system is an important part of your immune system.

The downside is that the lymphatic system cannot filter all particulate matter.

Transferred by your blood, some of the particulate matter ends up in other organs (because your lungs are already hit by this point) - examples are your heart, kidneys, and brain.

Even fetuses - in other words: unborn babies - are affected by particulate matter accumulation.[171-175] To be precise: mothers' every 10 micro-grams increase in particulate matter per m3 of air leads to a 5-gram loss in birth weight.

Prospective mothers: beware...

If (or rather: when) particulate matter has reached your lungs, blood, and other organs, it can wreak havoc:

  • Your lungs become more inflamed when exposed to particulate matter.[192-198; 334]

    This effect has only been firmly established in animal studies--but is nevertheless firmly established. Lung inflammation underlies airway diseases such as asthma.

    Remember that without properly functioning lungs, you cannot accomplish anything in life: oxygen is (indirectly) necessary for any process in your body to keep running.

  • Particulate matter affects the health of your blood.[201-203]

    Hemoglobin concentrations - which carries oxygen in your blood - are reduced due to particulate matter. Hemoglobin is located in your red blood cells. These red blood cells are also decreased in number with more particulate matter exposure.

    White blood cells, which are integral in your body's immune response, are altered in response particulate matter increases in the environment...

    Additionally, substances that allow your blood to clot are negatively affected.

    Overall markers of stress are additionally increased in the blood with more particulate matter exposure.

    No bueno...

  • Lung tissue becomes more penetrable to foreign substances.[186-188] 

    A greater penetrability of lung tissue entails that pathogens such as unhealthy bacteria or viruses can also pass more easily into your bloodstream. Some contradictory evidence exists in this instance though--this effect is not yet firmly established.

  • Even our gut bacteria are altered by particulate matter.[189-192]

    Many people are aware nowadays that the bacteria in their gut are essential to maintaining good overall health. These bacteria are thus negatively affected by air pollution...

As you can see, there are several mechanisms by which particulate matter affects your body. Many mechanisms, such as how particulate matter influences organ function, still need to be investigated in more depth.

And there's more evidence:

The absorption of particulate matter from the environment through the lungs can occur very directly.

Examples?

Sure:

If you're living near a cement plant that emits lots of chromium into the air, that chromium can be detected in your blood, for example.[199] 

Another example:

If the particulate matter you inhale contains more lead you'll simply end up with more toxic lead in your blood.[332] 

Particulate matter can increase lead levels in that air through certain cooking methods or by traffic emissions. Even the water quality in your area can also be negatively affected.[332; 335; 336]


Metalworkers: beware--don't just protect your eyes, but also your airways...

 

On another note:

Remember that I mentioned that particulate matter larger than PM10 was not regulated because governments would have to mainly regulate sand that's transmitted through the air?

There's another reason why particulate matter larger than PM10 is less harmful: these substances are much more easily filtered in the nose and upper airways.[217] Large particulate matter is thus not your main health concern, as the body can more adequately deal with them. 

Ultrafine particulate matter - PM0.1 - is yet another story.[162; 255]

These very tiny particles can directly end up in your brain when you breathe them.

How?

These particles may travel through or alongside the nerve that runs from your nose to your brain - called the "olfactory nerve".

Unfortunately, the science regarding ultrafine particulate matter (PM0.1) is relatively new--but even PM2.5 levels have not been controlled for very long...

Let me explain...

The EPA did not even measure PM2.5 levels before 1997. PM0.1 - which are even smaller of course - has only been the new "star" on the block in recent years

The health effects of particulate matter are thus actively being researched today and in the coming decades.

It can reasonably be expected that many new mechanisms by which particulate matter affects your body are discovered in time.

That's bad news, as you'll have to act on incomplete data today...

In the next section, I'll explore the currently scientifically-proven health effects of exposing yourself to this toxin - even today's incomplete data is frightening...

 

Return To Table Of Contents

4. SCIENTIFICALLY-PROVEN HEALTH EFFECTS OF PARTICULATE MATTER EXPOSURE

Let's dig deep into a complete list of all the effects that particulate matter can have on your overall health. 

Fasten your seat belts - this is going to be a somewhat depressing list.

Keep in mind that, after you've read the entire list I will tell you exactly how to actually avoid all these particulate matter health disasters...

Ready?

Set...

Go:

  • Particulate matter increases what is called "all-cause mortality" - your "general risk of dying".[31-44; 46; 47; 140]

    All-cause mortality is the broadest risk of dying that's measured in medicine.

    Why?

    All-cause mortality is a very useful measurement because you're not just taking the direct effects of any health variable you're investigating into account, but also its indirect effects.

    Example? 

    Sure.. 

    Let's say I'm researching whether drinking alcohol increases my all-cause mortality risk. In that case, a direct all-cause mortality effect of drinking alcohol that I'd expect is an increase in liver problems and therefore a higher death rate. 

    An indirect effect, however, would be a higher risk of dying of accidents - because you're more fearless on alcohol while also losing coordination.

    Translated to the case of particular matter, an increase in all-cause mortality cannot merely be explained by an increased risk of heart attacks, but also due to your general fitness level that's decreasing, which makes you less able to jump away from a car that's heading your way (too) quickly.

    Let's consider another indirect effect of how particulate matter exposure influences your all-cause mortality:

    If you've got other diseases, such as tuberculosis, for instance, particulate matter inhibits your recovery and causes you to recover less well from that disease.

    No matter what your condition, it's safe to assume that an increase in particulate matter exposure makes recovery much harder...

    But let's go back to particulate matter's primary effects on all-cause mortality: even a couple of days of increased exposure to either PM2.5 or PM10 emissions when spending time in a particular area already heighten your risk of death.

    There's a difference between several types of particulate matter on all-cause mortality though:

    Some compounds such as "elemental carbon" or "organic carbon" are proven to have big effects, while evidence for the effect of metals in particulate matter is thinner. Lead or cadmium are examples of toxic metals.

    (Please keep in mind that I don't want to go in too much depth regarding different chemicals because this topic is already complex.)

    Nevertheless, the research on the effect of particulate matter on all-cause mortality is extremely solid: there's a small effect that increases the more particulate matter exposure you get - it's extremely rare to find contradictory outcomes here.

    Interestingly enough, particulate matter doesn't just increase your risk for "classical" air pollution diseases such as lung or heart diseases--even your propensity for self-harm (and thus psychological issues), nervous system illnesses, and movement disorders increase. 

    I'll get back to the issue of nervous system disorders later on...


    Very smart meerkats: breathing larger (and less damaging) desert sand particles instead of PM0.1 and PM2.5 coming from cars...

    Let's first consider an effect that should now be almost self-evident :

  • Particulate matter leads to (chronic) lung disease.[32; 37; 118-125; 127-137; 139-143; 146-151]

    Just as you can expect smoking to have a large effect on your lungs, the same is true for breathing particulate matter.

    For that reason, particulate matter's effects on your lungs specifically and respiratory system, in general, has been extensively studied. These health effects have been investigated in many countries, such as China, countries in Latin America, and the West, and the effect on your airways (and general health) is firmly established...

    The results can even be quantified:

    For every 10 micrograms PM2.5 increase per m3 in your environment, the number and intensity of respiratory problems you'll have increases linearly.

    If you already have lung or respiratory problems, particulate matter can further exacerbate these conditions. If you're coughing, wheezing, or having frequent respiratory tract infections, you'll have to be especially careful with particulate matter exposure.

    Simply put, particulate matter is more lethal if you've already got lung diseases.

    Lung conditions such as "COPD" are also directly caused by particulate matter exposure.

    With COPD, you'll have trouble breathing and using the air they breathe correctly.

    Children's lungs are harmed more quickly by particulate matter's effects - children, for example, are more prone to be admitted to hospitals and have asthma with greater particulate matter exposure levels.

    Children exposed to lots of particulate matter will also develop their lung function more slowly. Even in middle school, children's health development is still negatively affected by particulate matter.

    If you're older, particulate matter additionally makes your lung function decline faster than age peers with less exposure.

    Although there's some conflict of evidence, particulate matter may even decreases lung function if you're healthy.

    How about another common lung disease, "asthma"?

    (Asthma entails you've got a (chronic) inflammation of the airways.)

    Even with more short-term exposure to PM2.5 you're more prone to visit the emergency room as an asthma patient.

    Children with asthma are more susceptible than adults (yet again). More exposure to PM2.5 and PM10 can even help predict the chances of children having asthma once they turn 18. 

    There's also a relationship between low birth-weight, asthma, and PM2.5 exposure.

    Even mother's exposure to particulate matter while being pregnant is associated with increased probabilities of their eventual children getting asthma. Wheezing frequency is also increased with more prenatal particulate matter exposure.

    Crazy but true...

    And when you've got asthma, particulate matter will trigger that condition to be worse.

    Thus: steer clear from air pollution if you've got asthma or want to avoid it...

    And don't be fooled into thinking that the danger with particulate matter lies exclusively outside your house.

    Indoor particulate matter energy sources, such as firewood, kerosene, or liquid petroleum gas, are particularly dangerous. Many countries in the developing world still generate lots of indoor particulate matter through those methods.

    That indoor particulate matter is often "trapped" indoors - causing a continual re-circulation of these damaging substances.

    More bad news coming...

    I'm just getting started with particulate mater's effects on your lungs:

  • Particulate matter increases your risk of getting lung cancer.[122; 126; 141; 142; 152; 155; 156; 167; 204]

    The World Health Organization has classified particulate matter as a "class 1 carcinogen" - entailing that the substance is known to cause cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer puts the substance in the same category.

    The effects of smoking and particulate matter exposure accumulate: if you've ever smoked in the past, the effects of particulate matter is added on top of your greater lung cancer risk due to smoking.

    Surprisingly, current smokers experience less of an impact from particulate matter compared to non-smokers. The reason for that outcome is probably that smokers have built more tolerance towards ingesting toxins through their airways.

    Of course, remember that smokers still have an increased lung cancer risk compared to non-smokers, because they are exposed to two carcinogens instead of one (cigarettes or cigars and particulate matter).

    (So there's no reason to start smoking.)

    I hope you're beginning to see a pattern here: inhaling particulate matter is a kind of second-hand smoking. 

    About 80% of studies also claim that particulate matter increases lung cancer risk.

    What if you've already got lung cancer?

    Consider these numbers;

    The relative risk of dying from lung cancer increases with 9% per every 10 micrograms per m3 of PM2.5, and 5% for every 10 micrograms per m3 of the PM10 concentration of the air your breathe.


    "Particulate matter exposure? At least I don't smoke cigarettes..."

    Next:
     
  •  Particulate matter directly makes you more stressed.[67; 68; 157-159; 200]

    Yes, really...

    How?

    Several stress hormones are actually immediately increased when more particulate matter is present in the air you're breathing. 

    A difference in exposure of 24 micrograms per m3 instead of 53 micrograms of particulate matter per m3 - due to air purification being tested in a study - led to lower levels of the "cortisol", "adrenaline", "cortisone", and "noradrenaline" - which are all stress hormones.

    Keep in mind that many cities in the developed world reach that 53 micrograms per m3 concentration, and that people in these environments thus tend to have chronically elevated stress hormone levels.

    Particulate matter additionally increases your blood pressure, an effect further builds up if you're already under higher stress levels. Guess what? Many people actually are under high-stress levels in modern society...

    High particulate matter levels heighten your blood pressure almost instantly by a couple of points. In other words, if you're exposed your blood pressure increases immediately afterward.

    There's more gloom and doom though:

    Quality of life and overall mood can also be decreased by particulate matter exposure - especially in men. During pregnancy particulate matter also increases how often you (if you're a woman) get a depression.

    The higher stress and poorer quality of life effects of particulate matter hit younger people harder than the elderly.

    I know these results sound bad but stay with me: solutions are covered in a later section...

    Let's first consider another particulate matter health effect--you already know that particulate matter ends up in your bloodstream through the lungs--so:

  • Particulate matter directly causes heart disease.[37; 53-66; 76; 93-95; 111; 118; 120; 161; 309]

    Not only blood pressure but also heart rate increases with greater PM2.5 exposure. 

    At the maximum, the difference between very low and very high levels of particulate matter exposure can make the difference of a total of 12 points in blood pressure and 8 beats per minute qua heat rate.

    (I'm considering systolic blood pressure here, which is blood pressure measured during a heartbeat.)

    Heart rate variability, which is a marker of your body's general stress levels, is also negatively affected by more PM2.5 exposure. 

    If you're thinking: "so how does heart rate variability track stress?", then I'll tell you:

    The more variability between different heartbeats, the lower your overall stress levels. If the interval between heartbeats is really continuous, it's a sign of having greater stress levels - which precisely occurs with greater particulate matter exposure.

    Phrased differently, your heart rhythm can thus be affected by particulate matter. While evidence for particulate matter's effect on heart rate variability exists, the relationship is currently weak.

    Nevertheless, disruptions in heart rhythm, which is often a sign of heart disease, will occur due to particulate matter exposure.

    The overall effect on heart health is crystal-clear:

    For every microgram of particulate per m3 that's added to your environment, your risk of heart disease increases - again, a straightforward linear relationship is found.

    Particular matter's effects on heart disease can have far-reaching consequences: exposure can eventually lead to a stroke, heart attacks, or degeneration of your blood vessels.

    (In a heart attack your heart has insufficient oxygen, and as a consequence (a part of) your heart dies off. A stroke is similar, but happens in your brain, due to poor blood flow or low oxygen levels.)

    Getting exposed to more particulate matter directly causes people to have more heart attacks. 

    Every 5 micrograms of particulate matter per m3 that you're exposed to on a daily basis also increase your risk for having a stroke. There's thus a dose-dependent response to particulate matter in stroke risk (yet again). 

    Let's explore seven different mechanisms that explain the relationship between particulate matter and heart disease:

    The first mechanism is that blood vessels deteriorate. As a result of that deterioration, your heart or brain are more prone to end up in a situation where they no longer get sufficient oxygen.

    A second mechanism is that particulate matter lowers the ability of stem cells to function well. Stem cells are primordial cells that can differentiate into many different specialized cells, such as those found in your blood vessels.

    The regeneration of your blood vessels (and also organs) can thus be undermined if stem cells cannot do their job.

    A third mechanism by which particulate matter increases your risk for heart disease is by inducing what is called "oxidative damage".

    Oxidative damage occurs because of harmful reactions with oxygen. To counter that damaging process, you commonly consume anti-oxidant rich foods such as vegetables - antioxidants inhibit these damaging reactions.

    It's reasonable to assume that particulate matter creates oxidative damage wherever it ends up in your body...

    Particulate matter leads to higher risks for heart disease, fourthly, by increasing inflammation levels. Inflammation underlies many modern diseases.

    Fifthly, particulate matter affects heart and blood vessel health is by influencing blood clotting. Particulate matter can additionally cause thrombosis - an excessive clotting of blood in your blood vessels.

    Sixthly, bio-markers in your blood that are associated with heart disease, such as triglycerides, are also negatively affected.

    And lastly: remember it has been demonstrated that particulate matter literally ends up in your circulation, lowering blood quality.

    Particulate matter can thus have a huge effect on your heart and blood vessel health, and cut your life short by several years. Unfortunately, the effects of particulate matter on causing heart disease are really solid..

    Taking a broader perspective: heart attacks (40%) and strokes (40%) are by far the most important reasons of dying because of air pollution.[3]

    Steer clear of particulate matter if heart health is your goal. Next, yet another bummer:

  • Particulate matter increases your diabetes risk.[52; 68; 168]

    Longer-term exposure to PM2.5 will literally cause some people to have diabetes--people who would have otherwise not gotten that disease.

    Particulate matter also induces what is called "insulin resistance", which is associated with diabetes. With insulin resistance, your cells cannot properly take up and use carbohydrates (glucose) anymore.

    Rat studies have demonstrated that high particulate matter exposures lead to insulin resistance throughout the entire body. Poor diets might thus not the only reason people end up with diabetes in modern society...

    Then, another expected consequence:

  • Particulate matter decreases brain and nervous system health.[49; 81; 96-104; 106-117]

    Cognitive function, for example, specifically decreases under the influence of particulate matter. Having more general stress exacerbates that problem. You'll thus make more mistakes on cognitive tasks with higher particulate matter exposure levels.

    More particulate matter exposure also quickens your cognitive decline in old age. 

    In babies and children, particulate matter exposure increases what is called "inflammation" in their brains. Again, inflammation is associated with many modern diseases. 

    Even before birth - as you've frequently read right now - particulate matter may have an effect upon the child's eventual health. More particulate matter exposure leads to less development of the "neocortex", a brain region that is highly developed in human beings, and specific to your human capabilities.

    Regardless of age, if you're living near a major road, you're more prone to have a smaller brain volume, more brain infarcts, and more pathological changes to your brain.

    That's bad news...

    More particulate matter exposure you may even end up with fewer brain cells - although that effect is still contested. And while that effect is not enormously strong, it's measurable sometimes.

    What's fascinating is that the effects of particulate matter on the nervous system have not been studied in great detail yet. 

    Remember that while it's demonstrated that particulate matter ends up in your circulation--how particulate matter ends up in the nervous system or brain is not fully understood yet.

    Nevertheless, brain diseases do increase under the effects of particulate matter - examples are Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, but also regular headaches. 

    How?

    That's not sure again...

    Rat studies, however, do show that inhaling particulate matter increases the "beta-amyloid" buildup, which is one of the plaques causing Alzheimer's disease - a common brain degenerative disorder.

    Overall blood vessel health in the brain is also reduced through particulate matter exposure in rat studies. 

    In the same poor rats, maternal exposure to particulate matter during pregnancy also affects the nervous system and immune system development in their offspring.

    That's not all:

    Another reason to suspect that particulate matter contributes to brain diseases is that air pollution, in general, has already been demonstrated to cause brain diseases.

    While there's still some conflict of evidence regarding this topic, but I assume it's very probable that many negative effects of particulate matter on human brains will eventually be demonstrated.


    "Breathing too much particulate matter..."

    I'm happy almost done with this list:

  • Unsurprisingly, particulate matter may also increase your body's "oxidative stress" and inflammation levels.[70-80; 82; 160; 309]

    Remember I've talked about oxidative stress before - in relation to your blood vessels. The effect of particulate matter on inflammation in your body is broader, unfortunately.

    Skin cells, brain cells, lung cells, and nerve cells, for example, can all be affected by particulate matter.

    Particulate matter also increases inflammation levels in general - as these substances can end up in many locations in your body, they can have far-reaching effects on how tissues function.

    Inflammation is associated with many modern diseases, such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, and cancer.

    There's one caveat: 

    Many of these effects on oxidative stress and inflammation are proven based on cell cultures in laboratory studies--and have not yet been verified in humans.

    Oxidative stress and inflammation are not always bad either. Why? Some theories do claim that the oxidative stress and inflammation are protective to avoid further damage. 

    Nevertheless, chronic long-term exposure of particulate matter can cause cells in your body to die. Cell death may be one of the mechanisms that explain how particulate matter causes damage to the airways and lungs.

    Almost done...

    One last (negative) effect of particulate matter exposure:

  • Your mitochondria - the "energy producing factories of your cells" - are negatively affected by particulate matter.[83-92]

    (If you're interested in this topic, keep in mind that I've written extensively about the role of mitochondria in disease before.)

    Even before birth, higher exposure levels of mothers to PM2.5 will cause more problems in the specific DNA of your mitochondria.

    Many people don't know that their mitochondria have their own DNA - that you solely inherit through your mother - which is different than your regular genome.

    During the last decade, it has become apparent that the DNA of your mitochondria is much more predictive of whether you'll develop certain modern diseases than your regular genes. 

    Disease increases because of errors in copying the DNA of your mitochondria over time. You'll essentially end up with more and more diverging mitochondrial DNA over your lifetime, through which your mitochondria no longer function well anymore.

    Thus, if the mitochondrial DNA of a fetus is slightly damaged through particulate matter exposure of the mother, that's serious business. Lifetime trauma of the mother increases that damaging effect--and the effect is also stronger for boys.

    The parts of the mitochondrial genome that is activated in fetuses is also altered by maternal particulate matter exposure. Through that mechanism, particulate matter can change how your mitochondria handle energy and information - potentially leading to health problems and lower energy levels down the road.

    After birth and as an adult, particulate matter still affects your mitochondria negatively:

    If you work multiple days in a row in an industry where lots of toxic metals are emitted, certain biomarkers related to the incorrect copying of your mitochondria's DNA increase.

    Rat studies also demonstrate that particulate matter can damage the functioning of the mitochondria in your heart. In humans, that same effect appears when people smoke cigarettes - which are substances emitting particulate matter.

    Mitochondria in immune cells - such as those found in your lymph system - are also disrupted. 

So that's it...

The final list of most of particulate matter's health effects...

Sure, there are many other topics that I could have covered, such as skin disease,[144; 185] changes in your DNA,[162-165] and causal increases of autism in children - all due to particulate matter exposure.[221-226] 

Other examples are that fetuses may be born prematurely or even die, have birth defects, and that children get more lung issues after birth.[176-184]

The problems don't stop there:

Even as an adult, air pollution will also make you less productive. If the indoor air quality of your office is poor, you'll lose 6-9% of productivity each day.[228]

The ultimate office: no air pollution and plenty of sunlight.

My main goal with this section was to demonstrate that particulate matter has many negative health effects.

Remember that are skeptical towards the negative health effects of air pollution, not understanding the extent of the damage that's being done.

I hope you are convinced by now...



(Nerd section: short-term causal models are available for studying the effects of PM exposure on health, but longer-term causal models are not that prevalent as of right now - especially for PM0.1. I'm very interested in longer-term studies of particulate matter exposure.[105; 166]



I've already alluded in the section above that some groups of people should be more worried about exposing themselves to particulate matter though. 

Who?

Let's find out...

You're more susceptible to particulate matter's negative health consequences if you:[40; 44; 56; 58; 63; 153; 305-307]

  • are a child. Because children breathe a relatively greater amount of air, particulate matter affects them more than adults. Children also have immune systems that have yet to fully develop, making them more susceptible--and lastly, children just spend more time outside, ensuring they're exposed to more particulate matter.

  • already have lung issues, such as asthma. With lung diseases, you've already got less leeway, and particulate matter further decreases that maneuverability room...

  • currently have heart problems or diabetes - your overall health is lower in such instances so that you're less well able to cope with particulate matter exposure.

  • are of older age - elderly simply have less resilience than younger people.

Remark: there does not seem to be any difference between how ethnicity are affected by particulate matter exposure.

Worldwide, the greatest overall burden of particulate matter exposure is actually carried by elderly people in low to mid-income countries. 

Some of these countries have very high atmospheric particulate matter levels, which is toxic when combined with the lowered defensiveness of elderly people.

Almost done considering the health effects...

Let's consider another problem: how long does particulate matter exposure affect you?[47-49]

The answer varies, but some studies suggest that your health can be negatively influenced for decades after the initial (heavy) exposure.

Of course, the exposure I get today will most heavily impact how I function today and tomorrow. But overall, previous exposures can possibly influence your health years down the road.

Even your brain volume and the health of your blood today may thus have been negatively affected by previous particulate matter exposure.

Naturally, past exposure to particulate matter becomes less and less damaging over time. Your current exposure thus remains the most important predicting factor in determining what particulate matter's health effects are - unless you ended up with an irreversible disease.

The bottom line is that timing matters: just a few hours of exposure to particulate matter can increase your risk of having adverse heart problems, for example.[300] 

In other words, if you travel to London tomorrow, the air there will immediately have negative consequences to your health...

Keep in mind that the full health effects of particulate matter are even more complex:

While different chemicals in particular matter are important for the eventual outcome, I've chosen not to distinguish between all these effects in this blog post.[58]

This blog post is already running too long for some people to read...

Treating tens if not hundreds of different chemicals such as potassium or nickel, and their respective effects on different diseases would make the topic unnecessarily complex for most readers.

Also remember that particulate matter is not the only type of air pollution.

Particulate matter is made up of 1) solids; 2) liquids. Lots of evidence also exists, however, that gases can negatively impact your health.

A simple example of a gas is benzene that you may get exposed to when filling up the tank of your car. 

I do want to re-emphasize one point:

PM0.1 or "ultrafine" particulate matter is the most damaging to your helath.[218; 219]

First of all, ultrafine PM0.1 can be directly taken up into the bloodstream, without filtering in the nose, airways, or lungs.

I've chosen not to go into more detail into the specific PM0.1 exposure issue unless many people request a section specifically targeted towards PM0.1 in a new version of this blog post.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of PM0.1 won't interest most poeple.

One last remark of this section:

Please keep in mind that much science inquiring into PM2.5 and PM0.1 specifically has yet to be carried out. Remember that PM2.5 has been intensively investigated for only two decades, and PM0.1 has hit the spotlight for just a few years.

Some of these substances' health effects are just not yet known. The depressive list of health consequences you've read before will thus need to be updated over time...

PM10 has been studied for decades, however. 

On the upside:

Fortunately, this blog post now transitions to finding solutions for the particulate matter air pollution problem. 

The next section treats the topic of measuring the particulate matter levels in your environment.

 

 

Return To Table Of Contents

5. TESTING AIR QUALITY: PARTICULATE MATTER LEVELS

Remember the air quality map I've mentioned earlier?

Observe on that map that particulate matter concentrations also vary widely across the globe.[145] Less densely populated areas in Western Europe are generally very safe. East and South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are generally very much polluted.

Consider the following problem:

Most of the data that's collected on particulate matter concentrations are actually not coming from your house, the building you're working, or the train or road you are spending time at every morning.

The data on that map is often sourced from 5 or 10 blocks away from your home. Most people thus don't have any actual data on the PM2.5 or PM10 pollution at the locations they're spending most of their time.

Data on how polluted your location is are in fact very important.

Let me explain:

Let's say I'm living in Paris.

In that case, there might be tens of different particulate matter measurement systems placed around and outside the city that all yield different outcomes.

That sounds great, right?

Just observe what the measurement system three blocks away tells you, and you know how polluted your street is, right?

Wrong...

There's sometimes a 10-fold particular matter difference between different places. 

Don't believe me?

View the map of Paris below:

(again, you can observe the current air pollution levels around your location on this map.)

There's even a big difference between several places in the inner city.

Air pollution maps can only give you a very general impression of the particulate matter you're exposed to.

If you really want to know how much air pollution you're "ingesting" on a daily basis, you can thus not rely on the government's data--you have to take your own measurements instead.

And, no, I'm not selectively showing you cities to prove my point.

Here's the data on Mexico city on October 16th, 2018:

Again, more than a 10-fold difference in air pollution levels...

New York City?

An even bigger discrepancy:

Observe the 25-fold difference in exposure there. Of course, there are anomalies to that 10-fold difference observation.

Beijing is one example:

Unfortunately, it also seems that there's nowhere to hide in Beijing--but that's another topic I'll get back to later.

Please observe that not all places in the city are measured in terms of air quality.

If you want real-time data on how you are doing in your house, office, during transit, or when you're spending time in the park, you thus need to measure air pollution levels yourself.

The seasons also affect how much particulate matter hangs around in the air. Rain does the same thing. 

The air quality map can give me a totally different outcome tomorrow compared to what it's telling me today. If a factory shuts down tomorrow, I may be exposed to 70% less particulate matter compared to today.

Circumstances thus matter...

 

Bottom line: if you're worried about air pollution - and specifically particulate matter - in your environment then you cannot exclusively rely on maps.

(Neither can you rely on the government's solutions.)

One common government recommendation is to tell people not to go outside when air pollution levels are too strong. To me that's a very imperfect solution because you're no longer able to expose your eyes and skin to sunlight - which I consider a prerequisite for optimal health.

The solution is more complicated - stay with me to find out why in section seven...

Another important point:

Local sources of particulate matter pollution are generally more damaging than what you'd get exposed to from far away.[29]

Remember I told you that some of particulate matter pollution could originate from a desert? While you may get exposed to some particulate matter from far away, most is actually sourced from your direct environment.

Of course, even though smaller types of particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM0.1 can travel farther, but particulate matter from nearby busy streets, heavy industry, and airports are most killing...


Airports can double particulate matter concentrations for miles

If you "cannot move" due to air pollution because you're stuck to a given city (due to your job for example), think again.

Remember that air pollution levels can vary 10-fold across different areas in the same city.

Moving out of the city center towards the periphery can thus have a dramatic impact on the particular matter you're exposed to on a daily basis.

Living very close to a busy road, for example, dangerously increases your overall mortality risk.[140] That statement does not just reflect my opinion--it's a solid fact.

So let's consider a few case studies of exactly where particulate matter originates from.

Consider the deaths that are attributable to just PM2.5 in China in 2016:[207]

  • Industrial coal for industrial processes: 155,000
  • Transportation: 137,000
  • The residential burning of biomass: 136,000
  • Non-coal industry: 95,000
  • Coal for energy generation: 87,000
  • Intentionally-created outdoor fires: 70,000
  • Residential coal burning in homes: 41,000

That's 721,000 people who've lost their lives due to just PM2.5 in a single year in China. China's neighboring country, India, counted 666,000 deaths from PM2.5 that year.

What should these statistics teach you?

Traffic is not the only particulate matter source that should worry you:

If your neighbors are burning wood or coal to generate energy, and the smoke is directed your way very frequently, then you're going to suffer the consequences.

If you're living next to a coal power plant, you may want to move to the other part of the town if possible, so that you can still keep your job in that same city.

But I'd like to go one step further:

An "air quality detector" is a great tool to measure PM2.5 and PM10 levels in your direct environment:

Again, measuring your air quality is highly recommended if you live in a polluted area. You'll get real-time feedback on how good (or bad) the air quality at your location is. 

The air quality detector listed above costs $129, and measures both PM2.5 and PM10 (and additionally, formaldehyde and "VOCs" other air pollutants). CO2 levels are also measured by that monitor.

If you want a less expensive (and less all-around) model, consider this budget option for a particulate matter quality detector:

This budget device only measures PM2.5, which is more important than PM10.

On another note:

Unfortunately, I've not seen any commercial grade affordable PM0.1 air quality detectors. Only the more expensive $260 Dylos measures particles up until 0.5 micrometers.

The average person does not need to buy that meter.

Why? 

If you don't have an air purifier yet, then the main reason you'll want to measure the air quality is getting a general impression of the PM2.5 levels in the location you're spending time at (over time). 

(The topic of air purifiers is treated in the next section)

If you do have an air purifier, then dropping levels of PM2.5 with that air purifier will always be combined with even further lowering of PM0.1, as air purifiers capture the latter particles roughly equally well as the former.

It's also very rare to have extremely high PM2.5 particle levels while having very low PM0.1 levels--PM2.5 particles can thus act as a good benchmark for PM0.1.

(PM0.3-sized particles are the most difficult to capture for air purifiers, moreover, so both PM2.5 and PM0.1 are cleaned pretty effectively with a high-quality product.)

Bottom line: if you're living in the civilized world and the air quality map shows a trend of lower air quality in your environment, it's time to acquire more data on your location.

When measuring the PM2.5 and PM10 levels in the environment you're spending time daily, make sure to collect data over longer periods of time.

Of course, if you measure dangerous levels for several days, you'll already know what you need to know. In some instances, however, high PM2.5 might, for example, be harder to detect:

Your daily transit, for example, may only take an hour but expose you to 90% of the particulate matter that day. Neighbors burning wood next door may also only be detectable at certain times...

And if you do detect high levels of particulate matter in your home or office?

In that case, read the next section on using air purifiers...

Want to know what to do right now to decrease your risks?

 

Return To Table Of Contents

6. PARTICULATE MATTER AIR PURIFIER GUIDE 

In this section I'll cover the most important guidelines for using air purifiers to reduce particulate matter in your environment - I'll also give you the best product recommendations...

Keep in mind whether you need an air purifier really depends on your circumstances.

Not everyone needs an air purifier.

And you may also be thinking: "great, I've already decided to get a high-quality air purifier now, so how long will it take before my health improves?"

Finally, I can talk about the bright side of my message: health improvements due to lowering the amount of particulate matter you're exposed to happen almost immediately.

Of course, the damage that has been accumulating for decades cannot be undone in a few weeks or months.

Nonetheless, it's better to start cleaning the air today rather than tomorrow if you're exposed to lots of air pollution.

Blood pressure and stress hormone levels will drop off immediately after you start purifying your air, for example...

So let's begin with the basic questions: "what's an air purifier?"

Simple:

Air purifiers are devices which filter the air that circulates through them. These devices contain two main components that are important to remember: 1) a motor; 2) a filter.

The motor in the air purifier makes sure that air moves through the filter. The filter then captures any harmful substances and prevents these substances from re-circulating through the air.

The dirty air thus enters the air purifier, and clean air exists the purifier - if all goes well...

Not all air purifiers are created equal though.

The more air moved through the filter by the motor, the higher your energy costs will be. More restrictive filters (i.e., the more particles trapped by the air purifier) will increase energy costs also.

You, therefore, don't want just any air purifier: you'll want a high-quality product:

Let me introduce you to "HEPA" filters - an abbreviation for "High-Efficiency Particulate Air" filter.

In general, HEPA filters are considered the golden standard for consumer air purifiers. HEPA filters basically entail that lots of particles are trapped by such a filter...

Next to regular HEPA filters, "true HEPA" filters also exist. "True HEPA" generally filter the air better than regular HEPA filters.

A true HEPA filter removes 99,97% of all particles bigger than 0.3 micrometers. Only 0.03% of particles bigger than 0.3 micrometers are thus re-emitted into the air.

In other words:

If 100.000 particles enter the filter, only 30 will come out "alive" and are re-introduced into the air.

Let's consider which types of particles are specifically removed by true HEPA filters.

In most cases, true HEPA filters are most effective with larger (PM10) and much smaller (PM0.1) particles, and least effective around the 0.3-micrometer particle-size range. In the least effective range, 99,97% of particles are thus still removed from the air.

You'll thus want a "true HEPA filter" instead of a HEPA filter, as the latter is not necessarily standardized to filter at maximum efficiency.

(Don't be fooled by advertisements that filters are "highly efficient" or "HEPA-like", as these air purifiers almost never live up to expectations and use deceptive marketing.)

Additionally, filtration "efficiency" is not the exclusively important parameter to look out for when buying an air purifier.

Why?

Well:

The air purifier you're buying needs to be effective.

If you've got a 300 square feet room and you place a true HEPA air purifier in that room which has a maximum capacity to filter 150 square feet, the filtration process is not going to be optimal.

Let me explain...

Remember the motor component of an air purifier?

Without a strong motor, an air purifier cannot move enough air around in a room, and cannot effectively clean that air.

Of course, true HEPA filters need to be functioning properly in order to work correctly. If your filter has defects, filtering will not be effective nor efficient.

Additionally, some companies claim that true HEPA filters cannot capture really small particles such as PM0.1.

To be honest, that's bogus.

Again, true HEPA filters do the worst in particle ranges of 0.3 micrometers. Both above and below the 0.3-micrometer size, true HEPA filters actually entrap more air pollutants such as PM2.5.

Keep in mind that this blog post is specialized towards the topic of particulate matter, and I'm mostly recommending true HEPA filters to filter that substance.

Of course, (true) HEPA filters filter many other toxins from the air:

  • Dust, both heavy and settling
  • Soot, which results from incompletely burned carbon, often originating from wood, coal, or petroleum
  • Smog
  • Allergens
  • Pollen 
  • Viruses, bacteria, and mold

Some substances are not filtered with a (true) HEPA filter, such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Smoke from tobacco, oil, and wildfires (insofar they are not solid or liquid), and odors can generally not be removed by (true) HEPA filters.

The simple reason is that air purifiers are made to move air through them, and gases can thus also move through the filter.

For your air purifier to also stop gases, you thus need an additional filter to remove gases, such as an "activated carbon filter".

Fortunately, most modern air purifiers actually contain additional filters to remove gasses.

I'm just mentioning this fact so that you're not under the impressing that just buying a true HEPA filter is always sufficient for all circumstances.

The problem with carbon filters is that they're of different quality. Not all carbon filters are great at filtering out most gases.

Again, you'll want a high-quality product...

Oh yeah, one more thing:

You have to keep in mind that air purifiers are not all-powerful (or "omnipotent").

If you're keeping your windows opened up in a polluted environment, no amount of air purifying is ever going to keep your environment clean.

If you've got 3 dogs and you're cooking indoor in a small 160-feet apartment, one high-quality purifier might not be enough either.

On the other hand:

If you're sleeping in your small bedroom in your house in the woods that's located in the middle of nowhere, an air purifier that cleans 1300 square feet is overkill - you'll waste your money.

The goal is thus to find the air purifier that's right for you... 



(Nerd section: the filters inside a HEPA purifier are often made of fiberglass or synthetic nonwoven fibers). The former demands an increased air pressure compared to the latter, and therefore filters more particles from the air. On the carbon filters for gases: some gases such as formaldehyde or methane cannot be properly filtered by carbon, and thus most modern air purifiers cannot capture all air pollutants.)



So, the million dollar question (or rather $100-800 question) is this: "what air purifier would you recommend?"

I'll tell you in a second...

Let me first consider a problem:

The problem in answering that aforementioned question is that I don't have a team of several people and a laboratory to test many of high-quality air purifiers for several days.

And yet, I can make a good air purifier recommendation to you?

How? 

By combining the data of several great air purifier tests that have been carried out in the last year - I've included these tests if and only if these tests have described their testing methodology well.

I've synthesized the data of the following air purifier reviews of the last years (2017-2018):

  • Thespruce.com, who buy air purifiers themselves (and thus do not receive them as a gift), update their website daily, and test products in many different circumstances.
  • Thewirecutter.com, which is part of the New York Times, is reader supported and has spent hundreds of hours comparing different air purifiers. Purification speed and the ability to deal with larger rooms was one of the key metrics included in their test.
  • Reviews.com, who put a very heavy emphasis on air purification (as opposed to energy efficiency or air purifier noise levels), and have tested 80+ different products.
  • Homeairguides.com, a dedicated website for reviewing air purification systems that has existed for years.
  • Pureair.com, another website dedicated to exclusively reviewing air purifiers.
  • Yourbestdigs.com, who've carried out independent lab tests with several air purifiers and also consulted with air quality experts.

From each independent test I extracted the following data:

The number 1 product choice was allocated 10 points, their number 2 choice got 9 points, their number 3 choice 8 points, and so forth. I also included the reasons for choosing the different products in the eventual product analysis.

Some tests did not contain 10 different products, but I've nevertheless included as many products were available. In other words, if only 4-5 products were displayed, I've allocated points to these 4-5 products.

My recommendations are based on adding up the point allocated to each individual air purifier.

The top-3 air purifiers have been listed below (with their final scores).

One remark:

All air purifiers in consideration have (true) HEPA filters, and are thus capable of filtering out particulate matter. Particulate matter is, of course, the reason you're reading this blog post in the first place.

So what's the outcome?

Here we go:

(This list was last updated on October 24th, 2018.)

Let's consider the top 3 products: 

Taking first place, the Coway AP-1512HH, which scores 40 points in total:

This air purifier can improve air quality in rooms up to 530 square feet (~50 square meters). 

This device costs $205 (USD) at this point in time and is available in black and white colors to match your interior design. The design is also somewhat smaller than the other two air purifiers coming in at the second and third place.

The Coway has one big advantage: both power consumption and filter replacement are relatively inexpensive - at a low ~$45. The AP-1512HH purifier is also paired with an "Energy Star-rating". 

Sure, $205 is a lot of money for some people, but it's your best bet for improving indoor air quality.

This air purifier packs quite the punch for a $200 product, with four filtering mechanism: 1) an easily cleanable pre-filter that removes larger particles such as dust; 2) an odor filter; 3) a true HEPA filter; 4) an ionizer (emitting negative ions into the air--dust or allergens are positively charged, which are purported to be offset these negative ions).

Ionization, however, may prove to be pseudo-scientific and is considered and its benefits are unproven at this point. Fortunately, the ionizer can be turned off, which also inhibits (possible) ozone being emitted from this air purifier.

Fortunately, the California Air Resources Board has specifically tested the ozone emission of this air purifier and was tested at 0.050 parts per million, which is very low.[254]

Another remarkable upside is that the Coway AP-1512HH keeps filtering the air quite well year-after-year, even though the efficiency of most air purifiers degrades over time.

The noise of this air purifier is low, but there's one clear downside: its LED lights shine bright, a topic I'll come back to later.

Overall, it's hard to overestimate how good of an air purifier this is for a $200 price. The Coway AP-1512HH easily outperforms many air purifier that are two or three times as expensive, while also costing less in terms of upkeep.

Coming in at second place is the Winix 5300 or 5500 at 36 points:

Different air purifier consumer reports used different versions of the Winix, but as these devices are almost the same, I've rated the Winix 5300 and 5500 as if they were the "same device".

(The Winix 5300 misses some options which the Winix 5500 does include.)

Rating these very similar devices separately would make them end up outside the top three, and studies only tested either of them.

So why the Winix 5500?

First of all, this air purifier can filter rooms up to 360 square feet (or 33 m2). The Winix also automatically tones down its filtering intensity when the air gets cleaner - saving energy that way.

Secondly, this air purifier contains a carbon filter in addition to a true HEPA filter, to remove odors from the air. Carbon filters need to be replaced every 6 months. 

Thirdly, a big upside about the Winix-5500 is that it only costs $145. The replacement filters are more expensive, however, than the number one air purifier - coming in at around $60. 

Over time, the Winix can thus become more expensive than the Coway AP-1512HH, even though you're paying less up front.

The LED lights on this Winix air purifier can be dimmed, which is the fourth plus. 

So why does the Winix take second place instead of first place? Some independent tests rate the filtrating rate of the Winix 5500 lower than the number one spot, the Coway AP-1512HH--although others disagree by grading them as having similar capacities. 

Compared to the Coway AP-1512HH, the filters of the Winix 5500 are very easy to replace. If you're totally "non-tech-savvy", then opt for the Winix instead of the Coway AP-1512HH. 

The pre-filter of both air purifiers need to be removed and cleaned every two weeks, so keep that fact in mind. 

(Pre-filters spare the main HEPA filter - which is more expensive to replace - and the inclusion of a pre-filter is thus economical.)

Taking third place is the Honeywell HPA300, with 27 points:

At the time of writing, this air purifier is priced just below $200 - but nevertheless filters an area of up to 465 square feet (43 square meters).

The Honeywell air purifier contains two different filters - the most important types - which are a carbon pre-filter for gases, and a true HEPA filter (for our much-hated particulate matter).

This air purifier is specifically built towards reducing allergens - that fact alone might place this device at your first place if you've got problems in that health domain.

Energy costs of this air purifier are low, and the device has an "Energy Star-rating."

One downside of this air purifier is its looks. 

New HEPA filters are also more expensive than the number one rated device above (averaging $60). Honeywell filters need to be replaced every 6 months with normal use.

A last upside: the air purifier is pretty quiet, making this air purifier ideal for a mid to large-size bedroom. 

The best budget option is the Germguardian, with 26 points.

Keep in mind that this device is best used for smaller rooms - costing only $105.

This air purifier filters areas up to 200 square feet (18 square meters).

In addition to trapping particulate matter through the HEPA filter, odors are also captured and germs are killed through an "ultraviolet C" air sterilizer. Filters need to be replaced every 6-8 months.

The upside is that this smaller air purifier is less noisy than the air purifiers in the number one and two positions,  and is thus ideal for bedroom use. The downside for bedroom use, however, is that the LED lights are harder to dim.

Tip: another great location to place this air purifier is close to your desk if you're working in an office. A Germguardian can keep the air in your immediate vicinity clean.

Filter replacement costs $35, and the ultraviolet C air sterilizer costs 15 bucks to replace. One downside over the Coway AP-1512HH is that the Germguardian can become more expensive over a longer period of time due to replacement and electricity costs.

Additionally, if you've got very big rooms, such as an office floor, I would not recommend the products I've listed above.

Instead, buy an air purifier that's specifically built towards cleaning much bigger rooms, such as the Alen Breathesmart or the Coway Airmega-400.

Both are great options and were rated very highly in the air purifier reviews I've synthesized. 

Alen BreatheSmart 75i
Coway Airmega 400

These two air purifiers that are targeted towards larger rooms have been tested to 1,300 to 1,500 square feet rooms, or 120 to 140 square meters. Even in such large rooms, they can filter the air every 30 minutes.

Of course, their pricing reflects this increased filtering capacity, ranging from $550 to $750. 

Let's review the upsides of the Alen BreatheSmart 75i first:

  • Lifetime guarantee
  • Energy efficient
  • The sound that's generated by this device is "pink noise", which actually helps you sleep
  • extremely quiet. If you're very sensitive to noise pollution, this air purifier will get more attractive for you
  • Available in an insane amount of customization colors to match our interior
  • Comes in two versions, either specialized towards smoke, cooking odor, and VOCs (from furniture, for example), or specialized towards allergies and dust instead. For combating particulate matter, the latter option is better.

How about the Coway Airmega 400?

  • Energy efficient
  • Available in black and white model
  • Less expensive than the Alen Breathesmart while also cleaning more air (1500 square ft).

Downside? You can control the Airmega 400S version with WiFi. Solution? Always buy the regular Airmega 400, not the S version. The regular Airmega does not have WiFi connectivity.

The "S" signifies smart, which is usually pretty dumb considering that the amount of wireless radiation is growing exponentially and at a very harmful rate.

Please remember that air purifiers that are targeted towards bigger rooms are also bigger themselves, and will be highly visible when you place them in a small living room.

Disclaimer: keep your body at a 6 feet (roughly 2 meter) distance from the air purifier to prevent excessively exposing yourself to electromagnetic fields. So no placing an air purifier directly next to your bed.

Remark: please don't buy an air purifier that's targeted towards office use for your small condo or your bedroom, as you're literally wasting your money by that course of action.

Moreover, bigger air purifiers don't just cost more money for your first purchase, but their energy demand and filter replacements are also more expensive.

The reason you're spending much more on their energy cost is that a more powerful motor is necessary for such an air purifier to clean an entire office floor.

One legitimate reason to buy a much more expensive air purifier is if you have lots of issues with your airways, such as asthma or extreme allergies.

Another reason to go for maximum air purification is if you've got heart, lung or brain disorder--in an earlier section, I've demonstrated that particulate matter contributes to and even causes such diseases.

If you've got lung issues, for example, a 90% instead of 70% reduction in particulate matter in your living room can make all the difference in the world - especially over time

Better be safe than sorry in such instances, and spend $750 to clean the air in your house...

Note: none of the air purifiers listed above emit serious amounts of ozone.[249-254]

Ozone is an air pollutant in and of itself. You can get airway irritation and lung problems from ozone, directly countering the reason you're buying an air purifier in the first place.

Some previous generation air purifiers did in fact emit ozone. Air purifiers emitting ozone is thus sheer lunacy. 

(Nerds: please keep in mind that I'm not talking about ozone therapy here, which may or may not have merit--I've not looked at the evidence thoroughly there, and cannot judge.)

Keep in mind that your air purifier filters absolutely need to be replaced over time.

Not replacing filters is not an option...

Companies will often tell you how long a filter can last. There's a good reason a "shelf-life" is allocated to filters, as they can get stuffed over time so that less and less air is let through them.

If you fail to timely replace carbon filters that remove gases from the air, these toxic gases can even be re-released into your environment. 

Bottom line: follow the instructions for your product.

Air purification often times do not get the intended effects because people think their filters can last for two years, even though the company supplying the air purifier recommends replacement every 6 months.

One more thing:

One downside of many air purifiers is that they still contain LED lights that emit blue light.

Blue light will inhibit production of the "melatonin" hormone which aids your sleep quality. It's, therefore, best to put a piece of cloth over the display of the air purifier when you're not looking at the current status (e.g. the current pollution rate in the room). 

Another method of avoiding the blue light is to place the air purifier behind a closet, so that blue light is not projected at you.

Don't let your sleep quality be ruined because you're staring at blue light at night

Now, a very simple question remains: "should everyone buy an air purifier?"

The answer is a categorical "no".

Whether you would benefit from an air purifier depends on your personal context. Of course, if you're spending lots of time in one location where particulate matter levels are very high, then I would recommend an air purifier almost regardless of circumstances.

But if you've just got dust mites in your house, I would first recommend you'd change the carpeting and curtains.

If you're exposed to particulate matter in your car 12 hours a day, and only exposed to particulate matter in that situation, putting an air purifier in your home won't help either - that point should be self-evident.

In what circumstances would I recommend an air purifier?

Well, the most important instance is if you're 1) spending lots of time each week in the same location; 2) if that location has high particulate matter (or air pollution) levels.

You might also have seen portable air purifiers being sold online.

My opinion here:

I cannot recommend any portable air purifier almost regardless of circumstance with a clear conscience. 

Why?

Le'ts go through severla popular models:

With the hOmeLabs 3 in 1 Air Purifier with HEPA it's impossible to turn off blue light. The product is thus unusable in your bedroom at night. Remember that blue light after sunset disrupts your sleep.

The hOmeLabs may be usable during the daytime though, especially during transit. If you're spending lots of time in one location, I'd opt for one of the earlier static $100-$800 static models I've mentioned earlier. 

Another popular portable air purifier, the "Wynd", seems to necessitate an internet connection and thus relies on wireless radiation that you don't want to be putting out when you use a portable air purifier next to your bed or at your desk.

Thus: avoid the "Wynd"...

The next and last "portable" air purifier, the Levoit LV-H132, needs to be connected to the power grid and weighs almost 7 pounds. The upside of this air purifier is that doesn't emit electromagnetic radiator and that its light can be turned off.

Nevertheless, because the Levoit product is pretty heavy, it's hard to use as a portable air purifier.

Most of the smaller air purifiers are also not tested for ozone emissions, which is another red flagI'll only add a recommendation in this section once a product does not actively harm your health.

There's one last mater I need to consider in this section - which relates to a question many people actually have:

"So how do you know for sure that (true) HEPA air purifiers are actually working?"[213-215; 214; 227; 229-247; 257-269]

Great question...

This is a question that actually pops up over and over again...

Short answer: because many scientific studies have actually investigated air purifiers and demonstrated they do work.

Insane claims can actually be found on the internet that HEPA filters don't actually improve your overall health--such stupid claims can be easily debunked. 

Let's look at some examples demonstrating that HEPA filters work by looking at several scientific studies:

  • When mothers used HEPA filters during pregnancy, babies who were born at term had higher birth weights.

    Another group of pregnant women who used a portable HEPA filter ended up with lower toxins (cadmium) in their blood.

  • Allergies?

    Allergens in the bed and on the floor are reduced with HEPA filtering. Cat allergen levels are also reduced by air purification, although symptoms of people with cat allergies did not significantly decrease.

    Nasal allergies do decrease in intensity by using HEPA filters though.

  • In the case of asthma, there is some conflict of evidence, especially regarding earlier studies. Newer studies do demonstrate that beneficial effects of HEPA filters for asthma exist.

  • Then there's the subject of particulate matter. 

    First example:

    When children with asthma got an air purifier in their home that reduced particulate matter, their symptoms improved. The group that received a placebo (and thus a non-working HEPA filter) experienced a worsening of their symptoms.

    Unfortunately, this was a very small scale study.

    Indoor particulate matter levels were also reduced by 43%. While 43% might not sound perfect, the long-term effects of that 43% on your health can be dramatic. 

    And by the way: in the study, one HEPA filter was placed in a Cali home. I think with several HEPA filters in such homes you'd be able to get a 90% reduction or more - these homes are big...

    Second study example:

    Indoor particulate matter concentrations were reduced from an average of 49 to just 9 micrograms per mwith an air purifier - that's a five-fold reduction of particulate matter right there. 

    Third example:

    In an environment with 15 micrograms per m3, which is not high under international standards, high-efficiency filtration reduced particulate latter to 8 micrograms per m3 - thus halving the level.

    Results?

    Systolic blood pressure - meaning the pressure in the vessels during the period in which the heart is beating - was reduced with 3 points.

    Fourth example:

    Having a HEPA filter in your truck can reduce PM2.5 concentrations by 37%, even though new particulate matter is continually added back to the truck because drivers are continually on the road.

    Fifth: staying indoor and running a HEPA filter can even reduce indoor toxins (as long as the windows are closed) when forest fires are raging.

    Enough examples...

Overall, 80-90% of studies show positive effects of HEPA filters. Newer studies are generally more positive towards HEPA filters - because of technology improvements.

Concluding that modern HEPA filters don't work is like concluding that condoms don't function today because anti-conception was so bad in the 19th century...

Don't make that (logical) mistake...

The bottom line is that HEPA filters do work for purifying the air, and specifically for reducing particulate matter.

50-80% reductions of PM2.5 are not uncommon.

Now, are the health effects of using HEPA filters indoor enormous?

Unfortunately, there are not that many studies that investigate the lowering of particulate matter by using HEPA filters while also measuring direct disease outcomes (such as whether participants have a stroke or heart attack).

There's indirect proof though - if you want to be certain that lowering particulate matter helps.

What proof?

Large-scale studies who tracked the decline in particulate matter levels in the Western world after governments began legislating actually demonstrate that lower PM10 levels lead to better health.[311-313]

Let me give you some examples:

  • Less PM10 in the air caused lung function to decline less rapidly with aging.
  • In Switzerland, reducing outdoor PM10 concentrations in the 1990s led to less bronchitis, coughing at night, colds, and eye irritation in children. Sneezing and asthma intensities were not reduced though.
  • In Swiss adults in roughly the same period, (chronic) coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness were reduced. 
  • If you were living in the US in the 90s, a reduction of PM10 also caused a reduction in overall mortality.

To my knowledge, no large-scale studies of PM2.5 have been conducted because PM2.5's effects have not been measured for such a long period of time. 

The bottom line is this:

If reducing outdoor air PM10 pollution by 10-20% already increases your health, then 50-80% reductions of PM2.5 and PM0.1 will certainly help your health.


Clean mountain air: indispensable.

There's one downside about air purifiers I should inform you about: noise pollution.

(If you'd like to know more about noise pollution read my extensive guide about that topic.)

The sound levels emitted by air purifiers can amount to somewhat more than 50 decibels.

To give you a frame of reference:

50 decibels has the loudness levels of a regular conversation, of background music, a dishwasher, or very light traffic outside your house.

(If you're further removed from the air purifier, the loudness will become less intense of course.)

The problem with 50 decibels?

When you're exposed to that 50 decibel sound level during the nighttime its already considered noise - 40 decibels is considered the safe limit by the European Union for nighttime exposure levels.

Even that European Union research is not as strict as it should be though.

Why?

Just 30-40 decibels can negatively affect sleep quality.

For that reason, I'm a big fan of the Alen BreatheSmart 75i as a high-end option - even if you don't have a huge apartment.

Only buy that BreatheSmart if you've got money to spare and think the lowered noise outweighs the decrease in sleep quality. On the lower settings, the Breathesmart remains under the 30-decibel threshold for optimizing sleep quality.

Remember the Breathesmart filters up to 1300 square feet. As an alternative, the same company also offers:

Avoiding excessive noise is always best for your health.

Lastly, the best way to make sure your house or office is low in particulate matter is to combine an air purifier with measurement.

If particulate matter levels go down, you can simply conclude that your health will improve over time. 

That's it...

Everything you need to know about using air purifiers to reduce particulate matter. The next step is to look at other strategies you can use to lower particulate matter in your environment.



(Nerd section: keep in mind that the studies I cite above do not just treat the topic of particulate matter, but are also based on other types of air pollution such as pet allergens or pollen. The main claim, that HEPA filters specifically and air purification in general work, stands. 

There are also good explanations why HEPA filters do not demonstrate enormous health benefits (yet). I'll give four reasons. The first reason is that long-term studies inquiring into the health benefits of HEPA filters are rare. Remember that air pollution damages health over time. Just a few days in a polluted city is not going to make you sick--a few years will damage you though. The second reason is that many studies show that participants don't always activate their air purifier when they ought to. One reason can be that study participants themselves don't believe air purification can really solve their problems, and thus even though the placebo group does not activate their sham air purifier either, HEPA filters' true effect size is always underestimated. The third reason is that participants don't always maintain their air purifiers correctly so that the positive health effects drop down considerably over time. Fourthly and lastly, air purification technology has developed over time, especially the last two decades--studies that were more negative in the year 2000 may be invalid as of today, as better air purifiers may show results where older models did not. Overall, the future will probably demonstrate that HEPA filters do have big health benefits)



 

 

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7. EIGHT ADDITIONAL PARTICULATE MATTER HARM-REDUCTION STRATEGIES

The most important suggestion I have for reducing the damage that particulate matter does to your body is not to wait for governments to solve the problems for you.

You have to take matters into your own hands...

Again, even the strictest limits of particulate matter exposure that are set by the World Health Organization (WHO) are not strict enough. 

Why?

The WHO themselves admit that their recommended particulate matter exposure level of 10 micrograms per m3 is still damaging to your health.

And the only way you're going to lower your exposure level to levels below 10 micrograms per m3 is by moving to Scandinavia and live in the middle of nowhere. 

And no, living in a city in Norway or Finland is not good enough: pollution levels still far exceed the 10 micrograms per m3 there in most cities...

So what's the solution?

Control what you can control, and minimize damage. Below I'll give you eight different strategies to lower the negative health effects of particulate matter.

1. Consume enough antioxidants from food .[138; 154; 315]

Yes..

This outcome surprised me as well.

If you consume more antioxidants from food, you can partially undo the damage of inhaling lots of particulate matter.

Vitamin D, E, and the plant version of vitamin A (carotenoids) have been demonstrated to lower the respiratory symptoms of exposing yourself to particulate matter, for example. The animal form of vitamin A - called "retinol" - is also known to inhibit allergies.

Some of particulate matter's effects on asthma, COPD, and lung cancer can thus be inhibited or prevented by these aforementioned nutrients.

Additionally, B vitamins may lower some of the damaging effects of PM2.5. - this effect has (problematically) not been studied in great detail (yet).

Other nutrients that may aid are omega-3 fatty acids (preferably from fish, not supplements), vitamin C, choline (found in liver and eggs), and curcumin (a turmeric extract).

Overall fruit and vegetable consumption also help you deal with particulate matter, a fact derived from a study that showed that a Mediterranean diet is protective. 


Food: a counter-intuitive particulate matter harm reduction strategy

I recommend antioxidant supplements because it's very easy to go overboard with that strategy. Consuming too many antioxidants - amounts that cannot be had from regular food consumption - has been associated with some adverse health effects, such as an inability to adapt to exercise

The bottom line is very simple: improve your diet to lower the damaging effects of particulate matter.

Next: 

2. Avoid exposing yourself unnecessarily to particulate matter.[205; 282-284; 288-291]

Simple example:

You're exposed to over four times the particulate matter when riding that bicycle compared to the car when taking the same route.

The more you exert yourself, the greater the amount of particulate matter you're inhaling--exercising outdoors in polluted areas can thus have downsides for some individuals.

During heavy exercise, for example, you'll inhale up to 5 times as much PM0.1 compared to when you're doing nothing.

How do you know when to exposure yourself?

Again, refer to the air pollution map that (hopefully) shows trends for your living location, or buy an air quality monitor instead and do your own measurements. Then make sure you're not exercising at peak pollution times - if you're susceptible to particulate matter's effects.

There's no clear-cut advice I can give that can be universally applied to everyone's location:

  • The direction of the wind has a massive effect on the amount of air pollution that reaches your location.
  • Ultraviolet light during the daytime can make ozone - another air pollutant - more damaging, but ozone concentrations differ per location.
  • Many different pollutants exist--not just particulate matter is important--a factory that emits lots of sulfur dioxide can massively change the air in your street compared to a few streets further away.

Again, taking your unique situation into account becomes paramount.

The strategy to reducing your individual particulate matter exposure is very simple: know when you're exposed in the first place, and then (try to) deal with the situation.

Lots of people are exposed to particulate matter when they're commuting, for example. You might be too. Air filtration in cars is generally quite poor.

Another tip: it's oftentimes very simple to drive outside the city, and exercise in nature. Doing so can cut your particulate matter exposure by 10 or 20-fold during that day because remember: more intense breathing makes you inhale more of that toxic PM0.1 and PM2.5

If you do exert yourself, nasal breathing is always your best option because more toxins get filtered from the air.

There's another layer to this tip though:

3. Know thyself - take your susceptibility to particulate matter exposure into account.[285-287; 301-307] 

Remember that some groups of people are far more susceptible to particulate matter exposure? These groups included children, the elderly, and people with heart disease or lung conditions. 

The more airway, lung, cardiovascular, and brain problems you have in general, the warier you should be of exposing yourself to lots of particulate matter. Avoid exercising in the city altogether, in such instances, and get a high-quality air purifier.

For some people exercise's benefits may not even outweigh the particulate matter exposure risks.

Why?

Remember that heart problems can emerge relatively quickly if you get exposed to higher levels of particulate matter. Higher exposure does not take a month to manifest itself, but can happen within minutes or hours.

Lung problems? You might exacerbate your conditions by exposing yourself to higher particulate matter levels for an hour.

Genetic variation also exists, moreover, in how well you're able to handle particulate matter exposure. 

If you've got lung problems, I'm even willing to go as far as saying that taking the London metro every day (which is very much polluted) is not recommended.

If you've got young children or teenagers, living in a big city is almost certainly going to harm them unless you're willing to go to extremes to lower the exposure they're exposed to...

Bottom line: be more careful if particulate matter does more damage to you... 

4. Go indoors and strategically close your windows at specific times

If you're thinking: "but wait, you recommended NOT to spending lots of time indoor on this blog before?"

Yes, that's true.

But let's say there's a factory in your town that pollutes your neighborhood between 15:00 and 17:00 during workdays. Or let's assume that your neighbor is burning wood every evening at 19:00.

In such cases, you can strategically close all your windows to minimize the amount of particulate matter entering your home.

Windows can be opened up daily from 8:00 to 14:00, for example, if a close-by factory emits lots of air pollution in the late afternoon.

Make sure to reduce guesswork in relation to exposure levels to the minimum.

Get an air quality meter to be sure.

Closing windows while using air conditioning can reduce PM2.5 exposure by about 50% on average.[209]

If your building lets through lots of particulate matter through cracks, that number will be lower. If no air comes through while your windows are closed, more than 50% of PM2.5 will be blocked.

Closing windows so that fewer PM2.5 particles enter the building can almost immediately improve some measurable variables such as "heart rate variability".[210; 211] 

You can even make your home more airtight if you want to reduce particulate matter levels even further...

Please keep in mind that I'll never recommend keeping your windows closed at all times.

With closed windows, there's no new oxygen that can enter the house or CO2 that can be removed. Moreover, toxins that are created inside the home from cooking or that are emitted from furniture will also remain trapped and re-circulate.

If you use air conditioners - which are used in large parts of the warmer locations in the developed world - there will always be an exchange of air - preventing the effectiveness of this strategy.

Of course, air exchange locations of air conditioners can be ideal locations for filtering out particulate matter with an air purifier.[280]

One more thing:

Completely airtight homes are not a perfect option, in my opinion. Why? Well, such homes might help you limit particulate matter from entering your home, but indoor oxygen levels will also be dramatically reduced in such instances - unless you put lots of plants inside your home.

The ultimate method for avoiding particulate matter exposure in the city is thus to create an airtight home with so many plants that CO2 is fully recycled into oxygen.

A man can dream...


A blue print for my home in 5 years? Time will tell...

 

5. Wear protective gear if you're going to exposed to lots of particulate matter anyway.[292-299]

While I don't see people wearing protective gear in Europe and the Americas, things are very different in the East.

Protective gear for your airways and lungs - or "respirators" - such as listed below can filter out 99% of PM2.5, for example:

Will you look crazy with such protection?

Yes.

Nevertheless, I especially would highly recommend such protection in some circumstances.

If you're working construction and saw or grind material that emits lots of dust, I would never be without a respirator. Make sure you get the right fit, otherwise you won't experience the full benefits.

The downside of such filters is that they cannot adequately filter out gases.

Nevertheless, respirators have been demonstrated to work to increase heart health, for example - even reducing blood pressure in the short-term.

Of course, there's a huge social stigma when wearing such protective gear in the West.

If I were to wear such protective gear in nearby Amsterdam, I'd probably get arrested within 15 minutes because people would be thinking I'm about to commit a robbery (or terrorist attack).

Some people also just don't like wearing a respirator on their faces, which should also be taken into account. You can literally get claustrophobia by wearing a respirator.

Nevertheless, wearing protective gear for your airways is one important tool in your toolbox.

You can even wear a respirator when traveling to your job, for example, and use an air purifier at your job - which is the extent some people with lung or heart diseases have to go to remain relatively healthy.

Next, another possible game changer:  

6. Use lots of plants outside your house, especially rooftop greening.[270-279] 

You can simply envision outdoor plants to be "air purifiers" that are placed outside your house.

Pines especially capture particulate matter well. You can buy pines that can grow on rooftops, such as:

  • Pinus mugo var. pumilio 
  • "Slowmound" Pinus mugo
  • "Dwarf Blue" Pinus pumila 

Don't worry if you don't understand what these Latin plant names refer to - I don't either. Nevertheless, if you ask a professional gardener they'll probably know what to do if you tell them you want a very specific plant on your rooftop.


Pinus mugo, as I've been told
by mister Google

If you cover 90% of an average home's rooftop with such pine plants, up to 100 kilograms of PM10 and PM2.5 can be filtered out of the air over the course of a year.

Another strategy is to surround the perimeter of your home with conifer trees, which is also a pine class plant. Conifers have been proven to effectively filter the air from particulate matter.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Hedera helix, also called "common ivy" or "English ivy" are additional great plants that you can place around your house.

Protecting plants from rain exposure increases the amount of particulate matter is effectively captured from the air. The reason is that rain removes some of the particulate matter that's captured by the plants again. 

Of course, you cannot fully remove plants from rain exposure...

Placing plants closer to polluting areas - self-evidently - also increases plant's efficiency.

Not all plants are equally as effective in reducing particulate matter. Some types of plants re-emit the particulate matter they capture during warmer seasons.


Scots Pine - simple, but one of the kings of
outdoor air purification.

 

Unfortunately, studying the effects of vegetation on particulate matter reduction is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, almost all trees will reduce the amount of PM2.5 or PM10 that enters your home to some extent - some plants just do so better than others.

Combinations of several types of plants work best.

Even creating a "living wall" - literally a wall of vegetation -  can dramatically reduce particulate matter exposure. Juniperus chinensis, or Chinese Juniper, is a great option for that - which is a pine plant again.

Other highly effective species for creating a living wall is:

  • Stephanandra incisa, or Laceshrub
  • Betula pendula, or Silver Birch
  • Taxus media, or Anglojap Yew.
  • Taxus baccata, or English Yew.


If all roads had living walls like these,
particulate matter would be much less of a problem

 

The downside of plants?

Pollen.

Some people will have allergic reactions to having lots of plants in their vicinity. Whether increasing vegetation around your house is a solution thus depends on your personal context.

Nevertheless, if you're (mostly) allergy free, then surrounding your entire home with plants and plant walls can massively improve your particulate matter exposure levels...

But what if you can't do much with plants because you're living in a flat?

In that case: 

7. Take political action

Yes, air pollution does have political solutions (sometimes).

Remember that as an individual, you cannot accomplish anything in the political domain. As a group of people, especially those who are affected most by air pollution in a single area, you can change things.

The expansion of an airport, the creation of a new busy road near your neighborhood, or the construction of a new factory may be preventable if you band together in your community.

While this strategy is self-evident, I'd still decided to include it here. Again, remember that pollution that's emitted close to your living and working environment mostly predicts the PM0.1 and PM2.5 levels there...

Lastly, another harm-reduction strategy:

8. Detox with infrared light or saunas - and better yet: sunlight.

Infrared one of the types of light that's emitted by the sun - the others being ultraviolet light (that give you a sunburn) and visible light (which makes up all the colors of the rainbow).

Some types of infrared light are actually what makes the sun feel warm to your skin - infrared light also literally penetrates into your body.

That infrared light is also used in "infrared saunas". And because infrared light heats up your body, it is an alternative sauna method than traditional saunas that use hot air.

Infrared light has actually been shown to aid in the detoxification of many substances. 

Unfortunately, there's no direct evidence for infrared light expelling particulate matter from your body - the same is true for regular saunas. Nonetheless, it can reasonably be expected that infrared light expels particulate matter levels from your cells and helps your body detox.

Of course, sunlight is your best overall option for adding infrared light to your body.

One problem with air pollution is that smog can dramatically reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the air's surface - a problem that I'll treat in my next blog post on air pollution in general.

I'd like to see studies on the detoxification of particulate matter in the near future, especially because this type of air pollution is so widespread...


As always, all roads lead to the sun...

In fact, particulate matter is so widespread that you'd have to ask ethical questions regarding its output - that's exactly what I'll do in the next section...

Want to get a few additional tips to further decrease your risks? Download the infographic below:

  

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8. PARTICULATE MATTER - AN ETHICAL AND POLITICAL ANALYSIS

Remember the statistics: 800,000 deaths directly attributable to particulate matter per year, and almost 5 million lives cut short.

One reason for including this short ethical and political analysis of particulate matter in relation to the environment is because solutions to this problem are not always up to us.

You might be affected by air pollution while having no say in the matter at all...

Let's take several diverging ethical and political views in Western societies, and apply them to the problem of particulate matter:[24-27]

While I'm oversimplifying here, famous 20th-century liberal philosopher John Rawls has claimed that societies should be set up in such a way so that human lives are ruled by circumstances as little as possible, so that each individual in a liberal society has the maximum amount of freedom.

Rawls accepted that some redistribution of economic goods might need to be introduced so that each individual would have their lives ruled as little as possible by circumstance.

From the political perspective of the West, Rawls is considered a more left-leaning thinker.

Translated to the problem of particulate matter, you could argue that from Rawls' philosophy, individuals in society might need to be compensated for the damage particulate matter does to them.

In a sense, because particulate matter damages individuals for which they are not compensated, and because your freedom as an individual is inhibited due to air pollution, particulate matter emissions are fundamentally unjust in a sense.

(I'll get back to why some people are hit harder by air pollution than others later on.)

A more libertarian principle of justice entails that aggression should not be permitted upon other members of society.

It's possible to make the case that emitting particulate matter actively harms other people - and can thus be considered an act of (minor) aggression...

Because particulate matter emissions are a form of aggression upon other members of society, victims should be compensated for the damage dealt upon them (or particulate matter emissions should be prohibited, which is less viable.)

That libertarian perspective is more right-leaning in Western societies (although it's also arguable that libertarianism transcends the left-right paradigm).

My point is that particulate matter can be considered problematic from both the left and right spectra of politics.

Why do people accept air pollution in society so easily then?

Well:

The problem with air pollution in general, and particulate matter specifically is that you're not directly observing the harm that's being done.

Emitting particulate matter is like buying palm oil that leads to the destruction of rain-forests: if you don't directly see the harm that's being done, you more prone to buy the palm oil anyway.

Of course, people also understand that particulate matter emissions are also harming people, but its nature is different than direct violence (such as assaulting someone).

Let me explain:

If I directly poison a few people with lead, the police will be at my doorstep pretty quickly. If I poison 100,000 people with just a little bit of lead through the air, however, I often won't have to pay for my deeds.

Let's explore that example further with a case study:

Assume that I have a factory that directly emits pollutants into the air, and 100,000 people in that environment are affected. 

Let's also assume that I operate that factory for 30 years so that the negative consequences of the particulate matter are thinly spread out over a long period of time.

Fortunately, you now know that air pollution cuts peoples lives short, so the case study below should be telling.

Assume these facts:

Over the course of 30 years, 10,000 people who live very close the factory have their lives cut short by 3 months, 50,000 people living in a medium range lose 1 month of their lives, and 40,000 people have their lives cut short by two weeks.

Again, because the damage occurs over a 30 year period, no-one really notices the harm being done.

To ease calculation, let's also assume that 1 month consists of 4 weeks.

In the case sketched above, let's calculate how many weeks of time I remove from people's lives with my factory:

  • 10,000 * 3 months = 30,000 months of lives cut short in people living very close by that factory, equaling 30,000 * 4 = 120,000 weeks of human lives that are cut short.
  • 50,000 months of lives cut short for people living at a medium distance of that factory, which equals 200,000 weeks of lives removed.
  • And lastly, another 40,000 * 2 weeks cut short, which sums up to a total of 80,000 weeks in shortened lifespans.

Overall, 120,000 + 200,000 + 80,000 = 400,000 weeks of human lives that are lost over a 30-year period.

Let's also say the average person becomes 80 years old in the area around the factory. For simplicity sake, assume that a year contains 50 weeks. In that case, one human life consist of 4,000 weeks.

Here comes the kicker:

Remember my factory shortened the lifespans of people in that area by 400,000 weeks over a 30-year period? 400,000 weeks / 4,000 week per lifetime = 100 lives being lost.

Almost imperceptibly, I would thus kill 100 people over a 30-year period, which equals more than 3 human beings per year.

And yet, there's no police at my doorstep arresting me. 

If you still think my scenario is some very out of the box fantasy, think again. 

There are actual instances in which such a shift in mortality rates and health is observed, due to a factory temporarily closing because of strikes.

Overall, I would consider air pollution and particulate matter a type of secondhand smoking.

That sounds counter-intuitive but bear with me...

By emitting particulate matter into the air, someone profits in a society.

If I drive a car for 30 hours a week, I'm benefiting because I can drive my car. Other people are harmed because they live near the road I'm emitting that particulate matter on.

Another example:

Someone who lives in the city and who bikes to their work does not emit much particulate matter at all (perhaps only in relation to the energy production they rely on), and has thus a net-negative contribution of particulate matter in that society.

The biking person is harmed on a relative basis because of particulate matter emissions, but never compensated.

The key here is to understand that not everyone produces particulate matter equally and is harmed equally.

Some people produce almost no particulate matter but are harmed quite a lot...

Want a more extreme example than cars? Take the particulate matter emissions of airplanes.[327-330]

80% of this planet has never flown--20% of Americans have never flown.

And yet, if you've never flown your health is still negatively influenced to the same extent as people who do fly - often even more negatively influenced because as a poor person, you're more prone to live near the airport...

PM0.1 concentrations near airports can be 2 fold higher within a 4-kilometer distance from an airport, and 30% higher at 7 kilometers. In the direct vicinity of an airport, particulate matter concentrations can increase 10-fold.

Unfortunately, that particulate matter penetrates indoors as well.

If you're working at a minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant chain near an airport, you're taking a big hit to your health without being compensated for that particulate matter damage. 

To make matters worse:

The problem is that our entire economic system is based upon at least a degree of air pollution.

If air pollution was completely prohibited, no factory or car could function anymore.

The problem, in my mind, is not pollution per se, but that people are not compensated for the pollution they're exposed to in a just manner. Of course, measuring the pollution output of each individual in a given society would be almost impossible.

Particulate matter concentrations are the highest in areas where most people work and live.[208] 

Solutions are possible though:

Up to 80% reductions in particulate matter concentrations can be achieved by technologies that are currently already available. The society-wide implementation of such technologies is partially responsible for the reduction in particulate matter concentrations in the EU.[30] 

One very successful intervention, installing particulate matter filters in diesel trucks and cars, have reduced their emissions by 95-99%. 

Unfortunately, many people who have diesel motor vehicles are intentionally removing their filters. The reason for the removal is that these filters also need to be replaced over time, just as HEPA filters in your air purifier. 

Buying a new air filter can be costly, and people don't buy a new one. Costs are leveled upon other members of society again...

Particulate matter's effect is not just restricted to human health. The environment you live in also deteriorates the more particulate matter is emitted into the air. 

Let's shortly go through three environmental effects one by one:

Firstly, particulate matter lowers the health of plants.[317; 320-322]

Particulate matter, for example, can lower the health of soils.

Crops themselves can also be directly damaged by particulate matter. Soils next to road have lower nutrient levels.

Bacteria and fungi in the soil are affected by particulate matter, for example, which will affect plant growth.

Additionally, particulate matter sometimes "covers" plants so that they receive less sunlight. Light is essential for plants to grow, and when plants are covered by dust they won't grow as well as they otherwise would.

The temperatures of leaves are also increased when more dust settles on them. Some sources argue that the dust increases rather than decreases light absorption, but that increase occurs in an unnatural way.

Secondly, particulate matter negatively affects water quality.[320; 323-326]

Water in your environment can become more acidic due to particulate matter settling there. Particulate matter also carries certain toxic metals such as aluminum or cadmium into the water supply.

Another effect is that even the nutrients in oceans and rivers are influenced by particulate matter. The quality of the seafood you're eating and the water you're drinking may thus be affected by particulate matter emissions of cars and factories.

Thirdly, even rain becomes different the more particulate matter emitted into the air.[318-320]

While it was previously believed that particulate matter causes "acid rain", that claim is criticized nowadays.

It is nevertheless clear that particulate matter changes the nature of our rain. Emitting lots of pollutants in the air does not make them disappear - that pollution will come down somewhere

Many more environmental effects of particulate matter can be found. 

Demonstration of that latter goal gives credence to the thesis that particulate matter is both an ethical and societal problem

Please keep in mind that I did not want to sketch the ethical and political implications of particulate matter pollution exhaustively.

Doing so would require a 2 million word blog post, instead of a 22,500 one...

Nevertheless, I hope that this small section has made you think about what a problem of justice particulate matter pollution can entail for society...

 

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9. CONCLUSION: CONTROL PARTICULATE MATTER INSOFAR YOU CAN

As you know by now, some particulate matter exposure is unavoidable - you also know that that exposure is a human tragedy...

Why?

Hundreds of thousands of people die on a yearly basis because of breathing particulate matter, and millions of lives are cut short.

And yet, there's no easy solution to the particulate matter problem: the entire modern economic system is indirectly based upon processes that produce particulate matter, such cars, industry, and energy production.

Governments only slowly manage to reduce particulate matter pollution - even in Western societies. 

You also know by now that particulate matter also causes heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, brain problems, and much more. 

So what's the solution? Take matters into your own hands...

Plant trees around your house, use air purifiers both at home and at work, take political action to prevent that busy road from going by your house, wear a respirator when you're in your car, exercise in nature, and eat a good diet.

Do what you need to do to take care of your health.

No-one is going to do that for you...


You've just got yourself one step closer to paradise
by reading this blog post...

 

Believe it or not, my message is optimistic.

Why?

Well, you can control how particulate matter affects you, and cut your exposure levels down with up to 90%. 

That's a huge difference...

Even if you're living in a polluted metropolis, you may still be able to get your exposure levels down to the level of a Norwegian forest.

Will doing so cost some money? Sure: good air purification and related upkeep and energy costs, planting lots of trees, and making your house airtight are felt in your wallet.

But your health will thank you in the long run. And even though I've painted a bleak picture in this article, you can pull it off. 

Start by measuring your exposure levels, and then systematically reduce exposure.

For God's sake, get a high-quality air purifier if you're living in a toxic city...

Starting to improve you air quality is like riding your bike for the first time - you might be scared at first, but with practice, you'll get effortless control and succeed automatically.

Begin today, not tomorrow.

You deserve it - and your health does too...



*Post can contain affiliate links. Read my affiliate, medical, and privacy disclosure for more information.

Author: Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy, Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MSc - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MSc).



Read my other blog posts:

How Noise Pollution Slowly Degrades Your Health Without You Even Noticing (+Simple Solutions)

Conquer (Chronic) Stress: The Ultimate Guide To Stress Relief.

The Ultimate Bone Broth, Gelatin, and Collagen Protein Guide (2018)

The Ultimate Blue Light Filtering Glasses Guide

Mitochondria: Why Your Cells' Functioning - And Not Genetics - Determine Disease

 

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