An invisible danger

The causes and consequences of airborne particulate matter

Protecting your health from harmful substances is becoming increasingly important. Many people want to ensure the environment they are in is as healthy as possible. This number has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is that some dangers – including particulate matter – can normally not be seen, smelled, or tasted. But what exactly is particulate matter? How does it come about? And what consequences does it have for our health?

Basically, particulate matter refers to small solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. They range from a few micrometers to submicrometers in size. The terms typically used for classification purposes are PM10, PM2.5, and PM1. These describe particles 10 µm or smaller, 2.5 µm or smaller, and 1 µm or smaller, respectively. The particles are just a fraction of the diameter of a human hair and are not visible to the human eye.

Where particulate matter comes from

Particulate matter does not come from a single source, it is a collective term for a range of heterogeneous substances that can be divided into two basic categories: naturally occurring particulate matter and anthropogenic particulate matter.

Soot and smoke produced by forest fires, flower pollen, fungal spores, airborne sea salt, and fine dust that erodes and is transported by the wind are examples of naturally occurring particulate matter.

Anthropogenic particulate matter is generated by human activity. It is generated in a variety of ways: Very fine particles, such as soot, are released into the ambient air by combustion processes in car engines, industrial plants, and private heating systems. 

Additionally, construction sites generate significant amounts of often toxic or carcinogenic particulate matter. Last but not least, industrial production processes are another general source, particularly in cement production, metal production and processing, and power generation.

When particulate matter enter the ambient air, there is a risk they will be inhaled.

Small particles, big health risks

The smaller the fine dust particles are, the deeper they can penetrate into the lungs. While PM10 particles usually only penetrate the upper parts of the lungs, PM2.5 and PM1 can reach the alveoli and sometimes even the blood. There can be serious health consequences if people are exposed to certain types of particulate matter on a regular basis or over a long period of time.

High levels of particulate matter therefore endanger our health in a variety of ways.

Effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems:

Inflammatory processes can be triggered if particulate matter enters the lungs, potentially resulting in respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This increases the risk of general cardiovascular diseases, heart attacks, and strokes.

Oxidative stress:

Inflammation causes long-term oxidative stress, which damages cells and DNA. This can lead to chronic conditions.

Impaired lung function:

Permanent exposure to high levels of particulate matter can impair lung function. In young children, lung growth may even be delayed or stunted.

Reduced life expectancy:

A number of studies demonstrate a link between exposure to particulate matter and premature mortality. In Los Angeles, poor air quality shortens life expectancy by an average of around 8 months. In Beijing it can be as much as 22 months.

Some populations are at a higher risk of their health being affected by particulate matter.

Children and old people are particularly susceptible due to their weaker immune systems. The same is true for people with immunodeficiency or temporarily low defenses. Moreover, low-income people are at above-average risk because of their exposure, living conditions, and occupations.

Developments in air pollution

It is no secret that particulate matter is a global problem that causes significant social and economic damage.

Stricter emissions regulations in industry, the mobility revolution, new agricultural guidelines, and numerous technological advances will gradually reduce the proportion of particulate matter caused by humans. However, sources such as small domestic fires, which are responsible for much of the smog in China and India, will remain dependent on the economic development of the population.

However air pollution develops, it is sensible to protect yourself from particulate matter using suitable air filters for vehicles, houses, and other places. That's why we focus on bringing innovative air quality solutions to market, which we develop in close and long-term collaboration with the mobility industry. In this way, we help protect people's health and sustainably preserve the environment.