PM 2.5: What is it and why does it matter?

Air pollution finds its gravity and perils in many specific culprits. One of them, that always stands out despite its microscopic size is – PM2.5.

If you have been reading about air pollution (which is very likely if you happen to be in a metro in India and suffering from the onslaught of all kinds of pollution), you must have come across this word a lot – Particulate Matter.

Simply put, Particulate Matter is a fine particle, that ranges across various microscopic sizes, and that hangs in the air as an invisible particle. These particles are often measured in microns (units of measurement for length).

Now one of the chief beasts from this category is Particulate Matter 2.5 or PM2.5 as we popularly know it. This one measures as miniscule as two and one half microns or less in width, hence the label 2.5. If you just want to get a rough idea of its size without digging into these complex numbers, just think astrand of human hair is about 100 microns wide – yes that’s how small these particles are.

Owing to their tiny size, they are found floating around in the air we breathe and the environment we inhabit. They tend to have a higher impact than other pollutants due to the fact that our body cannot naturally filter them.. Presence of sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water in an intricate mixture of solid and liquid particles comprising organic and inorganic substances that are suspended in the air – makes them dangerous and slippery. They also shrink visibility and make the air hazier when they are present in higher numbers.

Objects and processes all around us are responsible for the the production on PM2.5It can be your car, truck, cab, bus, construction equipment, any exhaust, power plant gas reaction, or a fuel being burnt like wood, heating oil, forest fire, grass fire or coal, as well as natural sources such as forest and grass fires.

The danger worsens because these particles are not just infinitely small but can also be ferried across long distances from their source easily with vehicles like wildfires or volcanic eruptions etc. As to the indoor side, anything seemingly inconsequential can be adding a lot of these harmful guys in the air you inhale by way of cooking smoke, candles, heaters, dust and dirt through carpets, pet dander, curtains, furnishings, household chemicals, etc.

Why is it a cause for worry?

World Health Organization (WHO) Guideline values put PM2.5 at 10 μg/m3 annual mean and 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean. National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM2.5 that have been revised too and these have pegged the short-term standard (24-hour or daily average) at 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) while the long-term standard (annual average) is at 15 µg/m3.

In that light, it is a matter of concern that India is home to as many as 10 of the 20 global cities with the highest level of PM2.5, as per the data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO) recently.

Experts have often indicated a close, quantitative relationship between exposure to high concentrations of small particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) and increased mortality or morbidity, both daily and over longer periods of time. Whenever there is little or no air circulation, levels of PM 2.5 push upwards and these particles move easily and deep into the respiratory tract, thus, reaching the lungs. Moreover, exposure to fine particles is a reason for short-term health effects that are related to nose, throat, eye, lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath along with serious conditions around asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies, too, have associated a rise in daily PM2.5 exposure to amplified respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths.

So, as you can see, there’s nothing tiny about PM 2.5 and it is an enormous concern and a tremendous challenge which is impossible to tackle unless everyone does his or her bit in confronting this hard-to-grasp enemy. It can be as simple as investing in the right equipment or planting more trees. Acknowledging the dangers of PM2.5 is the first step towards change!

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