Particle Pollution

Ever look at dirty truck exhaust?

The dirty, smoky part of that stream of exhaust is made of particle pollution. Overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution—like that coming from that exhaust smoke—can kill. Particle pollution can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.

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What Is Particle Pollution?

Particle pollution refers to a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe. But nothing about particle pollution is simple. First of all, the particles themselves are different sizes. Some are one-tenth the diameter of a strand of hair. Many are even tinier; some are so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope. Because of their size, you can’t see the individual particles. You can only see the haze that forms when millions of particles blur the spread of sunlight. You may not be able to tell when you’re breathing particle pollution. Yet it is so dangerous it can shorten your life.

The differences in size make a big difference in how they affect us. Our natural defenses help us to cough or sneeze larger particles out of our bodies. But those defenses don’t keep out smaller particles, those that are smaller than 10 microns (or micrometers) in diameter, or about one-seventh the diameter of a single human hair. These particles get trapped in the lungs, while the smallest are so minute that they can pass through the lungs into the blood stream, just like the essential oxygen molecules we need to survive.

Researchers categorize particles according to size, grouping them as coarse, fine and ultrafine. Coarse particles fall between 2.5 microns and 10 microns in diameter and are called PM10-2.5. Fine particles are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller and are called PM2.5. Ultrafine particles are smaller than 0.1 micron in diameter31 and are small enough to pass through the lung tissue into the blood stream, circulating like the oxygen molecules themselves. No matter what the size, particles can be harmful to your health.

Because particles are formed in so many different ways, they can be composed of many different compounds. Although we often think of particles as solids, not all are. Some are completely liquid; some are solids suspended in liquids. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts it, particles are really “a mixture of mixtures.”32 The mixtures differ between the eastern and western United States and in different times of the year. For example, the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast states have more sulfate particles than the West on average, largely due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide emitted by large, coal-fired power plants. By contrast, nitrate particles from motor vehicle exhaust form a larger proportion of the unhealthful mix in the winter in the Northeast, Southern California, the Northwest, and North Central U.S.33

Where Does Particle Pollution Come From?

Particle pollution is produced through two separate processes—mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical processes break down bigger bits into smaller bits with the material remaining essentially the same, only becoming smaller. Mechanical processes primarily create coarse particles.34 Dust storms, construction and demolition, mining operations, and agriculture are among the activities that produce coarse particles. Tire, brake pad and road wear can also create coarse particles. Bacteria, pollen, mold, and plant and animal debris are also included as coarse particles.35

By contrast, chemical processes in the atmosphere create most of the tiniest fine and ultrafine particles. Combustion sources burn fuels and emit gases. These gases can vaporize and then condense to become a particle of the same chemical compound. Or, they can react with other gases or particles in the atmosphere to form a particle of a different chemical compound. Particles formed by this latter process come from the reaction of elemental carbon (soot), heavy metals, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds with water and other compounds in the atmosphere.36 Burning fossil fuels in factories, power plants, steel mills, smelters, diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles (cars and trucks) and equipment generate a large part of the raw materials for fine particles. So does burning wood in residential fireplaces and wood stoves or burning agricultural fields or forests.

What Can Particles Do to Your Health?

Particle pollution can be very dangerous to breathe. Breathing particle pollution may trigger illness, hospitalization and premature death, risks showing up in new studies that validate earlier research.37 

Good news came this year from researchers who looked at the impact of the drop in year-round levels of particle pollution between 1980 and 2000 in 51 U.S. cities. Thanks to reductions in particle pollution people living in these cities had 5 months added to their life expectancy on average.38 This study adds to the growing research that cleaning up air pollution improves life and health. Other researchers estimated that reductions in air pollution can be expected to produce rapid improvements in public health, with fewer deaths occurring within the first two years after reductions.39

Researchers these days are exploring possible differences in health effects of the three sizes of particles and particles from different sources, such as diesel particles from trucks and buses or sulfates from coal-fired power plants. So far, the evidence remains clear that all particles from all sources are dangerous.40

Particle pollution can damage the body in ways similar to cigarette smoking. A recent review of the research on how particles cause harm found that the body responds to particles in similar ways to its response to cigarette smoke. These findings help explain why particle pollution can cause heart attacks and strokes.41

Short-Term Exposure Can Be Deadly

First and foremost, short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill. Peaks or spikes in particle pollution can last for hours to days. Deaths can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred if the air were cleaner.42

Researchers from Harvard University recently tripled the estimated risk of premature death following a review of the newer evidence from fine particle monitors (PM2.5) in 27 U.S. cities.43

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

  • death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;44, 45, 4647
  • increased mortality in infants and young children;48
  • increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;49
  • inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;50
  • increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;15, 5253
  • increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;54
  • increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and55, 5657
  • increased severity of asthma attacks in children.58

Again, the impact of even short-term exposure to particle pollution on healthy adults showed up in the Galveston lifeguard study, in addition to the harmful effects of ozone pollution. Lifeguards had reduced lung volume at the end of the day when fine particle levels were high.59

Year-Round Exposure

Breathing high levels of particle pollution day in and day out also can be deadly, as landmark studies in the 1990s conclusively showed.60 Chronic exposure to particle pollution can shorten life by one to three years.61 Other impacts range from premature births to serious respiratory disorders, even when the particle levels are very low.

Year-round exposure to particle pollution has also been linked to:

  • increased hospitalization for asthma attacks for children living near roads with heavy truck or trailer traffic;6263
  • slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers;6465
  • significant damage to the small airways of the lungs;66
  • increased risk of dying from lung cancer; and67
  • increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.68

The evidence warns that the death toll is high. Although no national tally exists, California just completed an analysis that estimates that 9,200 people in California die annually from breathing particle pollution.69 An updated computer modeling of deaths from pollution caused by coal-fired power plant emissions, exposures which are more predominant outside of California, estimates roughly 13,200 deaths from particle pollution in the Midwest, New England and the Southeast.70

Research into the health risks of 65,000 women over age 50 found that those who lived in areas with higher levels of particle pollution faced a much greater risk of dying from heart disease than had been previously estimated. Even women who lived within the same city faced differing risks depending on the annual levels of pollution in their neighborhood.71

The Environmental Protection Agency released the most thorough review of the current research on particle pollution in December 2009.72 The Agency had engaged a panel of expert scientists, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, to help them assess the evidence, in particular research published between 2002 and May 2009. EPA concluded that particle pollution caused multiple, serious threats to health. Their findings are highlighted in the box below.

EPA Concludes Fine Particle Pollution Poses Serious Health Threats

  Causes early death (both short-term and long-term exposure)
  Causes cardiovascular harm (e.g. heart attacks, strokes, heart disease, congestive heart failure)
  Likely to cause respiratory harm (e.g. worsened asthma, worsened COPD, inflammation)
  May cause cancer
  May cause reproductive and developmental harm

– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter, December 2009. EPA 600/R-08/139F.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone living in an area with a high level of particle pollution is at risk (you can take a look at levels in your state in this report). People at the greatest risk from particle pollution exposure include those with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema; people with sensitive airways, where exposure to particle pollution can cause wheezing, coughing and respiratory irritation; the elderly; people with heart disease; and children. New research points to ever-larger groups at higher risk, including diabetics, and most recently, women over 50.73

Diabetics face increased risk at least in part because of their higher risk for cardiovascular disease. A 2010 study examined prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in relation to fine particle pollution in 2004-2005. The evidence suggested that air pollution is a risk factor for diabetes.74 Traffic-related air pollution was implicated in two studies. A German study of nondiabetic women found that new cases of diabetes were more likely as levels of traffic-related pollution and particle pollution increased.75 A similar finding of an increased risk for diabetes in women who lived near roadways came in a large study of nurses and health professionals, although that study did not find a strong association with levels of particle pollution.76

Researchers are identifying increased risk for workers whose jobs expose them to heavy diesel exhaust as a routine part of their job. The risk of dying from lung cancer and heart disease is markedly higher in truck drivers than in the general population in the U.S., according to a study by Harvard University researchers.77 This study of over 50,000 members of the Teamsters Union employed from 1985 to 2000 looked at the cause of death of workers classified by job category. Truckers are exposed to traffic pollution and diesel engine emissions, while dockworkers are exposed to exhaust from forklifts and trucks in the shipyard. The study found that death rates for heart disease were 49 percent higher among truck drivers, and 32 percent higher among dockworkers than in the general U.S. population. Lung cancer death rates were 10 percent higher in the both the drivers and the dockworkers. Railroad workers have also faced higher risks of death from lung cancer and COPD, according to two studies looking at historical data for those workers. Although these studies examined historical data, both found that even accounting for smoking among the workers, the findings showed the impact of the diesel exposures.78

FACT: More than half of all Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

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