Things That Are Killing Us: Fine particulate matter

With the scale of environmental decay and disaster, it becomes difficult to conceptualize the degree to which these problems affect humans. The best way to do so is to understand the effect of one environmental problem at a time. For this week, let’s take a look at fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

PM2.5 is particulate matter in our atmosphere that is less than 2.5 micrometers, which is 3% the diameter of human hair. The pollutant is small enough that billions of particles can fit in a blood cell. Because of its relatively small size and weight, it is capable of staying longer in the air, which makes it easier for humans to inhale. PM2.5 can come from many different sources such as power plants, vehicle use, and natural disasters.

High levels of PM2.5 exposure have severe health consequences including aggravated asthma, decreased lung functions, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death. It is estimated that 4.2 million people die around the world due to PM2.5 exposure, including 50,000 in the United States. Exposure to air pollution also increases the risk of lung cancer and can also lead to plaque deposits in arteries.

In addition to the health consequences for humans, there are severe environmental consequences of PM2.5, including making water sources acidic, contributing to acid rain, damaging forests and crops, and depleting nutrients in soil. These environmental issues have decreased global life expectancy by one year, with a decrease in life expectancy by 1.2-1.9 years in Asia and Africa. Inequalities in air pollution have also increased. For example, in the United States, minority communities and low-income communities have significantly more exposure to PM2.5.

PM2.5 exposure is deadly for humanity, and it is indicative of how much work needs to be done in the air pollution sphere.