Particulates, alternatively referred to as particulate matter (PM) or fine particles, are tiny subdivisions of solid or liquid matter suspended in a gas or liquid. In contrast, aerosol refers to particles and the gas together. Sources of particulate matter can be man made or natural. Air pollution and water pollution can take the form of solid particulate matter, or be dissolved. Salt is an example of a dissolved contaminant in water, while sand is generally a solid particulate.
To improve water quality, solid particulates can be removed by water filters or settling, and is referred to as insoluble particulate matter. Dissolved contaminants in water are often collected by distilling - allowing the water to evaporate and the contaminants to return to particle form and precipitate.
Some particulates occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants and various industrial processes also generate significant amounts of aerosols. Averaged over the globe, anthropogenic aerosols—those made by human activities—currently account for about 10 percent of the total amount of aerosols in our atmosphere. Increased levels of fine particles in the air are linked to health hazards such as heart disease, altered lung function and lung cancer.
Among the most common categorizations imposed on particulates are those with respect to size, referred to as fractions. As particles are often non-spherical (for example, asbestos fibers), there are many definitions of particle size. The most widely used definition is the aerodynamic diameter. A particle with an aerodynamic diameter of 10 micrometers moves in a gas like a sphere of unit density (1 gram per cubic centimeter) with a diameter of 10 micrometers. PM diameters range from less than 10 nanometers to more than 10 micrometers. These dimensions represent the continuum from a few molecules up to the size where particles can no longer be carried by a gas.
But because no sampler is perfect in the sense that no particle larger than its cutoff diameter passes the inlet, all reference methods allow a high margin of error. These are also sometimes referred to with other equivalent numeric values. Everything below 100 nm, down to the size of individual molecules is classified as ultrafine particles (UFP or UP).
|PM10 (thoracic fraction)||<=10 μm|
|PM2.5 (respirable fraction)||<=2.5 μm|
|Ultrafine (UFP or UP)||<=0.1 μm|
|PM10-PM2.5 (coarse fraction)||2.5 μm – 10 μm|
Note that PM10-PM2.5 is the difference of PM10 and PM2.5, so that it only includes the coarse fraction of PM10.
These are the formal definitions. Depending on the context, alternative definitions may be applied. In some specialized settings, each fraction may exclude the fractions of lesser scale, so that PM10 excludes particles in a smaller size range, e.g. PM2.5, usually reported separately in the same work. Such a case is sometimes emphasized with the difference notation, e.g. PM10-PM2.5. Other exceptions may be similarly specified. This is useful when not only the upper bound of a fraction is relevant to a discussion. The facts that some particle size ranges require greater filter strength and the smallest ones can outstrip the body's ability to keep them out of cells both serve to guide understanding of related public policy, environment, and health topics.
The composition of aerosol particles depends on their source. Wind-blown mineral dust  tends to be made of mineral oxides and other material blown from the Earth's crust; this aerosol is light-absorbing. Sea salt  is considered the second-largest contributor in the global aerosol budget, and consists mainly of sodium chloride originated from sea spray; other constituents of atmospheric sea salt reflect the composition of sea water, and thus include magnesium, sulfate, calcium, potassium, etc. In addition, sea spray aerosols may contain organic compounds, which influence their chemistry. Sea salt does not absorb.
Secondary particles derive from the oxidation of primary gases such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides into sulfuric acid (liquid) and nitric acid (gaseous). The precursors for these aerosols—i.e. the gases from which they originate—may have an anthropogenic origin (from fossil fuel combustion) and a natural biogenic origin. In the presence of ammonia, secondary aerosols often take the form of ammonium salts; i.e. ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate (both can be dry or in aqueous solution); in the absence of ammonia, secondary compounds take an acidic form as sulfuric acid (liquid aerosol droplets) and nitric acid (atmospheric gas). Secondary sulfate and nitrate aerosols are strong light-scatterers.  This is mainly because the presence of sulfate and nitrate causes the aerosols to increase to a size that scatters light effectively.
Organic matter (OM) can be either primary or secondary, the latter part deriving from the oxidation of VOCs; organic material in the atmosphere may either be biogenic or anthropogenic. Organic matter influences the atmospheric radiation field by both scattering and absorption. Another important aerosol type is constitute of elemental carbon (EC, also known as black carbon, BC): this aerosol type includes strongly light-absorbing material and is thought to yield large positive radiative forcing. Organic matter and elemental carbon together constitute the carbonaceous fraction of aerosols.ii
The chemical composition of the aerosol directly affects how it interacts with solar radiation. The chemical constituents within the aerosol change the overall refractive index. The refractive index will determine how much light is scattered and absorbed.
In general, the smaller and lighter a particle is, the longer it will stay in the air. Larger particles (greater than 10 micrometers in diameter) tend to settle to the ground by gravity in a matter of hours whereas the smallest particles (less than 1 micrometer) can stay in the atmosphere for weeks and are mostly removed by precipitation. Diesel particulate matter is highest near the source of emission. Any info regarding DPM and the atmosphere, flora, height, and distance from major sources would be useful to determine health effects.
All aerosols both absorb and scatter solar and terrestrial radiation. This is quantified in the Single Scattering Albedo (SSA), the ratio of scattering alone to scattering plus absorption (extinction) of radiation by a particle. The SSA tends to unity if scattering dominates, with relatively little absorption, and decreases as absorption increases, becoming zero for infinite absorption. For example, sea-salt aerosol has an SSA of 1, as a sea-salt particle only scatters, whereas soot has an SSA of 0.23, showing that it is a major atmospheric aerosol absorber.
Aerosols, natural and anthropogenic, can affect the climate by changing the way radiation is transmitted through the atmosphere. Direct observations of the effects of aerosols are quite limited so any attempt to estimate their global effect necessarily involves the use of computer models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, says: While the radiative forcing due to greenhouse gases may be determined to a reasonably high degree of accuracy... the uncertainties relating to aerosol radiative forcings remain large, and rely to a large extent on the estimates from global modelling studies that are difficult to verify at the present time .
A graphic showing the contributions (at 2000, relative to pre-industrial) and uncertainties of various forcings is available here.
Sulfate aerosol has two main effects, direct and indirect. The direct effect, via albedo, is to cool the planet: the IPCC's best estimate of the radiative forcing is -0.4 watts per square meter with a range of -0.2 to -0.8 W/m²  but there are substantial uncertainties. The effect varies strongly geographically, with most cooling believed to be at and downwind of major industrial centres. Modern climate models attempting to deal with the attribution of recent climate change need to include sulfate forcing, which appears to account (at least partly) for the slight drop in global temperature in the middle of the 20th century. The indirect effect (via the aerosol acting as cloud condensation nuclei, CCN, and thereby modifying the cloud properties -albedo and lifetime-) is more uncertain but is believed to be a cooling.
Black carbon (BC), or carbon black, or elemental carbon (EC), often called soot, is composed of pure carbon clusters, skeleton balls and buckyballs, and is one of the most important absorbing aerosol species in the atmosphere. It should be distinguished from organic carbon (OC): clustered or aggregated organic molecules on their own or permeating an EC buckyball. BC from fossil fuels is estimated by the IPCC in the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, TAR, to contribute a global mean radiative forcing of +0.2 W/m² (was +0.1 W/m² in the Second Assessment Report of the IPCC, SAR), with a range +0.1 to +0.4 W/m²
The effects of inhaling particulate matter have been widely studied in humans and animals and include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular issues, and premature death. The size of the particle is a main determinant of where in the respiratory tract the particle will come to rest when inhaled. Because of the size of the particle, they can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs. Larger particles are generally filtered in the nose and throat and do not cause problems, but particulate matter smaller than about 10 micrometers, referred to as PM10, can settle in the bronchi and lungs and cause health problems. The 10 micrometer size does not represent a strict boundary between respirable and non-respirable particles, but has been agreed upon for monitoring of airborne particulate matter by most regulatory agencies. Similarly, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, PM2.5, tend to penetrate into the gas exchange regions of the lung, and very small particles (< 100 nanometers) may pass through the lungs to affect other organs. In particular, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that PM2.5 leads to high plaque deposits in arteries, causing vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis — a hardening of the arteries that reduces elasticity, which can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems . Researchers suggest that even short-term exposure at elevated concentrations could significantly contribute to heart disease.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have conducted the largest nationwide study on the acute health effects of coarse particle pollution. Coarse particles are airborne pollutants that fall between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter. The study, published in the May 14, 2008, edition of JAMA, found evidence of an association with hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases but no evidence of an association with the number of hospital admissions for respiratory diseases. After taking into account fine particle levels, the association with coarse particles remained but was no longer statistically significant.
The smallest particles, less than 100 nanometers (nanoparticles), may be even more damaging to the cardiovascular system. There is evidence that particles smaller than 100 nanometers can pass through cell membranes and migrate into other organs, including the brain. It has been suggested that particulate matter can cause similar brain damage as that found in Alzheimer patients. Particles emitted from modern diesel engines (commonly referred to as Diesel Particulate Matter, or DPM) are typically in the size range of 100 nanometers (0.1 micrometer). In addition, these soot particles also carry carcinogenic components like benzopyrenes adsorbed on their surface. It is becoming increasingly clear that the legislative limits for engines, which are in terms of emitted mass, are not a proper measure of the health hazard. One particle of 10 µm diameter has approximately the same mass as 1 million particles of 100 nm diameter, but it is clearly much less hazardous, as it probably never enters the human body — and if it does, it is quickly removed. Proposals for new regulations exist in some countries, with suggestions to limit the particle surface area or the particle number.
A further complexity that is not entirely documented is how the shape of PM can affect health. Of course the dangerous feathery shape of asbestos is widely recognised to lodge itself in the lungs with often dire consequences. Geometrically angular shapes have more surface area than rounder shapes, which in turn affects the binding capacity of the particle to other, possibly more dangerous substances.
The large number of deaths and other health problems associated with particulate pollution was first demonstrated in the early 1970s  and has been reproduced many times since. PM pollution is estimated to cause 22,000-52,000 deaths per year in the United States (from 2000) and 200,000 deaths per year in Europe.
Particles can affect the climate in two different ways. The "direct effect" is caused by the fact that the particles scatter and absorb solar and infrared radiation in the atmosphere . As particles become increasingly absorbing, a point is reached where the overall effect of the particle layer changes from cooling to heating. The result of the scattering of sunlight caused by particles is an increase in the amount of light reflected back into space, which results in a decrease in the amount of solar radiation that reaches the surface .
The "indirect effect" of particles are more complex and more difficult to assess. Changes in the number concentration of aerosols in the atmosphere causes variations in the population and size of cloud droplets. There is a set amount of water available for clouds. The water can form large droplets within the clouds, which causes precipitation (a major removal mechanism for aerosols). The addition of PM into the atmosphere causes the water to condense on to the particles. This results in more, but smaller droplets in the clouds, which increases the cloud albedo. In addition to increasing the albedo, this effect tends to decrease the chance of precipitation. If precipitation is suppressed, this results in excess water remaining in the atmosphere .
Due to the health effects of particulate matter, maximum standards have been set by various governments. Many urban areas in the U.S. and Europe still frequently violate the particulate standards, though urban air on these continents has become cleaner, on average, with respect to particulates over the last quarter of the 20th century. Much of the developing world, especially Asia, exceed standards by such a wide margin that even brief visits to these places may be unhealthy.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations in urban air. (See National Ambient Air Quality Standards.) EPA regulates primary particulate emissions and precursors to secondary emissions (NOx, sulfur, and ammonia).
In October 2008, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), within the California Environmental Protection Agency, announced its intent to request information regarding analytical test methods, fate and transport in the environment, and other relevant information from manufacturers of carbon nanotubes. DTSC is exercising its authority under the California Health and Safety Code, Chapter 699, sections 57018-57020. These sections were added as a result of the adoption of Assembly Bill AB 289 (2006). They are intended to make information on the fate and transport, detection and analysis, and other information on chemicals more available. The law places the responsibility to provide this information to the Department on those who manufacture or import the chemicals.
On January 22, 2009, a formal information request letter was sent to manufacturers who produce or import carbon nanotubes in California, or who may export carbon nanotubes into the State. This letter constitutes the first formal implementation of the authorities placed into statute by AB 289 and is directed to manufacturers of carbon nanotubes, both industry and academia within the State, and to manufacturers outside California who export carbon nanotubes to California. This request for information must be met by the manufacturers within one year. DTSC is waiting for the upcoming January 22, 2010 deadline for responses to the data call-in.
The California Nano Industry Network and DTSC hosted a full-day symposium on November 16, 2009 in Sacramento, CA. This symposium provided an opportunity to hear from nanotechnology industry experts and discuss future regulatory considerations in California.
DTSC is expanding the Specific Chemical Information Call-in to members of the nanometal oxides, the latest information can be found on their website.
from 1 January 2005
from 1 January 2010
|Yearly average||40 µg/m³||20 µg/m³|
|Daily average (24-hour)
allowed number of exceedences per year.
¹ indicative value.
|Most Polluted World Cities by PM|
|128||Kolkata, India (Calcutta)|
The most concentrated particulate matter pollution tends to be in densely populated metropolitan areas in developing countries. The primary cause is the burning of fossil fuels by transportation and industrial sources.