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Particulate matter pollution – encyclopedia for medicine and health

Fine dust pollution

Particulate matter is the term used to describe various solid and liquid particles that accumulate in the air and do not immediately sink to the ground. The term includes both the so-called primary emitters caused by combustion and secondary emitters caused by chemical processes. A distinction is made between PM10 fine dust (Particulate Matter) with a size of 10 micrometers and PM2.5, whose diameter is smaller. Due to the small particle size, fine dust cannot be seen with the naked eye, only certain weather conditions make it visible in the form of a haze.

Primary fine dust arises directly from emissions. These can be generated by vehicles, furnaces and heating plants, as well as by certain industrial manufacturing facilities. Humans themselves are primarily to blame for particulate matter. However, erosion or bushfires can also produce it naturally. Agriculture, especially certain substances from animal husbandry, cause secondary particulate matter.

Fine dust pollution

Although fine dust can also occur naturally, fine dust pollution is primarily a man-made problem. The increase in road traffic in particular is causing loads above the limit values, with not only petrol combustion playing a role, but also tire wear.

Since the particles can be harmful to health in too high a concentration, limit values ​​for PM10 particles have been set in Europe since 2005. The permissible daily value is 50 μg/m3, which may not be exceeded more than 35 times a year. The annual average is again 40 μg/m3. For PM2.5, the annual mean value has been 25 μg/m3 since 2008. Especially in large cities, the fine dust values ​​are often above the limit due to heavy road traffic.

Measurements by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) show that 95% of the fine dust pollution in Stuttgart in 2011 exceeded the limit within the measurement period. The UBA also provides information on current pollution data for the individual cities. In principle, however, particulate matter pollution in Germany has decreased since 1990 due to the emission measures introduced.

Health risks

Particulate matter is characterized by its ability to remain in the air longer than other particles before it settles on the ground. Therefore, the risk of absorbing the particles with the breathing air is higher here. However, if the fine dust gets into the body, it can trigger various health consequences. The extent to which the body is damaged by the particles depends on how large the particles are, how deep they penetrate the body and how long a person is exposed to the fine dust.

In principle, it is less important whether it is an aggressive chemical substance or just dust particles, rather the size of the particle is decisive. The smaller the dust particle, the deeper it can penetrate the body, which means that it usually cannot be breathed out again. It is assumed that PM10 particles only settle in the nasal cavity, while PM2.5 particles migrate to the bronchi and alveoli. So-called ultrafine particles can even settle deep in the lung tissue or the bloodstream. Since the particles are inhaled, the respiratory tract is particularly at risk.

In the short term, fine dust pollution can lead to irritation of the mucous membranes and inflammation. The trachea and bronchi are particularly affected. These symptoms are comparable to allergic reactions, so that prolonged exposure can lead to a so-called change of floor. In the process, the allergic reactions turn into chronic complaints – for the respiratory tract this means that allergic asthma can ultimately develop . Patients who already suffer from asthma require a higher daily dose of asthma medication when there is a high level of fine dust pollution.

Since the particles can also get into the bloodstream via the alveoli and the respiratory system is closely connected to the cardiovascular system , damage to blood vessels and the heart can also occur. The particles can lead to plaque deposits in the bloodstream and thus increase the risk of thrombosis . Finally, the regulation of the autonomic nervous system itself can also be affected, increasing the risk of heart attackincreases. Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that the risk of heart attack increases with decreasing air quality. The WHO assumes that in areas in Germany with heavy traffic alone, fine dust pollution shortens the life expectancy of the inhabitants by ten months.

However, the particles can also reach other organs from the bloodstream. The kidneys and liver in particular are often affected as detoxification organs. In principle, however, absorption through the skin or the gastrointestinal tract cannot be ruled out, so that damage to the health of the spleen or bone marrow is also conceivable.

The so-called 19 dust study was also able to prove on rats that fine dust is carcinogenic. Depending on the dose, exposure to particulate matter produced lung tumors in the rats. It is assumed that the results can be transferred to humans in a similar way. However, it has not yet been clarified whether the fine dust is carcinogenic directly, i.e. directly, or indirectly, via a decomposition product.

It is particularly dangerous that no effect threshold can be determined for fine dust, but which would not be harmful to health. While there are still limits for chemical substances, such as nitrogen dioxide, within which damage to human health can be ruled out, fine dust is harmful in any concentration.

A study by the Munich Helmholtz Center showed that damage to health occurs even at values ​​below the EU limits, and the risk of a heart attack in particular was higher than expected (12-13% increased).

Accordingly, it is not the case that only high, short-term exposure harms the body; long-term exposure to low concentrations can be harmful to health. In fact, studies show that fine dust pollution in the air is in linear relation to health damage.

Prevention & Prevention

In order to reduce fine dust pollution and thus also the damage to health, there have been guidelines for emission limit values ​​in the EU for a number of years, which the member states must comply with. At the same time, there are so-called environmental zones in many large cities, which may only be entered by vehicles with the appropriate emission filters.

It is assumed that environmental zones alone reduce fine dust pollution by around 10 percent on an annual average. In principle, however, experts assume that the traffic rate in Germany would have to be reduced by 60 to 80 percent in order not to exceed the daily maximum. Since this cannot be regarded as realistic in practice, people are repeatedly called upon to take the initiative.

The following are important here: Use of particle filters, use a bicycle or public transport instead of your own car, use cars with low fuel consumption or limit fuel consumption by driving slowly.

Fine dust can also occur, especially in industrial production plants, but also in nail salons or printers. Prevention in the workplace is therefore also necessary. This can be achieved by special extraction systems that are adapted to both the workplace and the pollutants produced. Where possible, workers should also use protective clothing such as a face mask.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.