Particulate Matter

Particulate Matter (PM) Basics

On This Page:
  • What is PM, and how does it get into the air?
  • What are the harmful effects of PM?
  • What is being done to reduce particle pollution?
  • How can I reduce my exposure to PM?

PM stands for particulate matter (also called particle pollution): the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

What is PM, and how does it get into the air?Size comparisons for PM particles

Size comparisons for PM particles

Particle pollution includes:

  • PM10 : inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 10 micrometers and smaller; and
  • PM2.5 : fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.
    • How small is 2.5 micrometers? Think about a single hair from your head. The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter – making it 30 times larger than the largest fine particle.

Sources of PM

These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals.

Some are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.

What are the Harmful Effects of PM?

Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. Some particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs and some may even get into your bloodstream. Of these, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to health.

Fine particles are also the main cause of reduced visibility (haze) in parts of the United States, including many of our treasured national parks and wilderness areas.


What is Being Done to Reduce Particle Pollution?

EPA regulates inhalable particles. Particles of sand and large dust, which are larger than 10 micrometers, are not regulated by EPA. 

EPA’s national and regional rules to reduce emissions of pollutants that form PM will help state and local governments meet the Agency’s national air quality standards.

How Can I Reduce My Exposure to PM?

You can use air quality alerts to protect yourself and others when PM reaches harmful levels:

Wear a Pollution Mask

There are times where we have to venture out into smoggy air. To protect your lungs from particle and chemical pollution, you should wear a pollution mask. Worn over the face, pollution masks remove the worst of the pollution from the air you’re breathing before it enters your lungs.

Setup an Air Purifier

Many pollutants, including particulate matter, can be filtered out of our air. Air filters, like HEPA filters, can remove particulates and other pollutants from your air, reducing your exposure to air pollution that seeps into your home.

People spend most of their time indoors; therefore, keeping our indoor air free of harmful pollutants is key for healthy living. Air purification is vital for parents, as children are especially susceptible to air pollution. Arming yourself with an air purifier can protect your loved ones from constant exposure to air pollution by reducing pollution levels inside your home.