Home » Particulate Matter » Level 3 » Question 1

Air Pollution Particulate Matter

1. What is Particulate Matter (PM)?

  • 1.1 Why does particle size matter
  • 1.2 How are particles formed?
  • 1.3 Which materials are the main components of particulate matter?

1.1 Why does particle size matter

The source document for this Digest states:

Airborne particulate matter represents a complex mixture of organic and inorganic substances. Mass and composition in urban environments tend to be divided into two principal groups: coarse particles and fine particles. The barrier between these two fractions of particles usually lies between 1 µm and 2.5 µm. However, the limit between coarse and fine particles is sometimes fixed by convention at 2.5 µm in aerodynamic diameter (PM2.5) for measurement purposes. The smaller particles contain the secondarily formed aerosols (gas-to-particle conversion), combustion particles and recondensed organic and metal vapours. The larger particles usually contain earth crust materials and fugitive dust from roads and industries. The fine fraction contains most of the acidity (hydrogen ion) and mutagenic activity of particulate matter, although in fog some coarse acid droplets are also present. Whereas most of the mass is usually in the fine mode (particles between 100 nm and 2.5 µm), the largest number of particles is found in the very small sizes, less than 100 nm. As anticipated from the relationship of particle volume with mass, these so-called ultrafine particles often contribute only a few % to the mass, at the same time contributing to over 90% of the numbers.

Particulate air pollution is a mixture of solid, liquid or solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. These suspended particles vary in size, composition and origin. It is convenient to classify particles by their aerodynamic properties because: (a) these properties govern the transport and removal of particles from the air; (b) they also govern their deposition within the respiratory system and (c) they are associated with the chemical composition and sources of particles. These properties are conveniently summarized by the aerodynamic diameter , that is the size of a unit-density sphere with the same aerodynamic characteristics. Particles are sampled and described on the basis of their aerodynamic diameter, usually called simply the particle size.

Source & ©: WHO Regional Office for Europe  "Health Aspects of Air Pollution" (2003), Chapter 5 Particulate matter (PM), Section 5.1 Introduction

The same information on
OzoneNitrogen Dioxide

1.2 How are particles formed?

The source document for this Digest states:

The size of suspended particles in the atmosphere varies over four orders of magnitude, from a few nanometres to tens of micrometres. The largest particles, called the coarse fraction (or mode), are mechanically produced by the break-up of larger solid particles. These particles can include wind-blown dust from agricultural processes, uncovered soil, unpaved roads or mining operations. Traffic produces road dust and air turbulence that can stir up road dust. Near coasts, evaporation of sea spray can produce large particles. Pollen grains, mould spores, and plant and insect parts are all in this larger size range. The amount of energy required to break these particles into smaller sizes increases as the size decreases, which effectively establishes a lower limit for the production of these coarse particles of approximately 1 µm. Smaller particles, called the fine fraction or mode, are largely formed from gases. The smallest particles, less than 0.1 µm, are formed by nucleation, that is, condensation of low-vapour-pressure substances formed by high-temperature vaporization or by chemical reactions in the atmosphere to form new particles (nuclei). Four major classes of sources with equilibrium pressures low enough to form nuclei mode particles can yield particulate matter: heavy metals (vaporized during combustion), elemental carbon (from short C molecules generated by combustion), organic carbon and sulfates and nitrates. Particles in this nucleation range or mode grow by coagulation, that is, the combination of two or more particles to form a larger particle, or by condensation, that is, condensation of gas or vapour molecules on the surface of existing particles. Coagulation is most efficient for large numbers of particles, and condensation is most efficient for large surface areas. Therefore the efficiency of both coagulation and condensation decreases as particle size increases, which effectively produces an upper limit such that particles do not grow by these processes beyond approximately 1 µm. Thus particles tend to “accumulate” between 0.1 and 1 µm, the so-called accumulation range.

Sub micrometre-sized particles can be produced by the condensation of metals or organic compounds that are vaporized in high-temperature combustion processes. They can also be produced by condensation of gases that have been converted in atmospheric reactions to low- vapour-pressure substances. For example, sulphur dioxide is oxidized in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid (H2SO4), which can be neutralized by NH3 to form ammonium sulfate. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is oxidized to nitric acid (HNO3), which in turn can react with ammonia (NH3) to form ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3). The particles produced by the intermediate reactions of gases in the atmosphere are called secondary particles. Secondary sulphate and nitrate particles are usually the dominant component of fine particles. Combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and petrol can produce coarse particles from the release of non-combustible materials, i.e. fly ash, fine particles from the condensation of materials vaporized during combustion, and secondary particles through the atmospheric reactions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides initially released as gases.

Source & ©: WHO Regional Office for Europe  "Health Aspects of Air Pollution" (2003), Chapter 5 Particulate matter (PM), Section 5.1 Introduction

1.3 Which materials are the main components of particulate matter?

The source document for this Digest states:

Recently a comprehensive report on PM phenomology in Europe was compiled (7). Sulfate and organic matter are the two main contributors to the annual average PM10 and PM2.5 mass concentrations, except at kerbside sites where mineral dust (including trace elements) is also a main contributor to PM10. On days when PM10 > 50 µg/m3, nitrate becomes also a main contributors to PM10 and PM2.5. Black carbon contributes 5–10% to PM2.5 and somewhat less to PM10 at all sites, including the natural background sites. Its contribution increases to 15–20% at some of the kerbside sites. Because of its complexity and the importance of particle size in determining exposure and human dose, numerous terms are used to describe particulate matter. Some are derived from and defined by sampling and/or analytic methods, e.g. “suspended particulate matter”, “total suspended particulates”, “black smoke”. Others refer more to the site of deposition in the respiratory tract, e.g. “inhalable particles”, which pass into the upper airways (nose and mouth), and “thoracic particles”, which deposit within the lower respiratory tract, and “respirable particles”, which penetrate to the gas-exchange region of the lungs. Other terms, such as “PM10”, have both physiological and sampling connotations.

Source & ©: WHO Regional Office for Europe  "Health Aspects of Air Pollution" (2003), Chapter 5 Particulate matter (PM), Section 5.1 Introduction

Themes covered
Publications A-Z

Get involved!

This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!