Particulates and Air Quality

What is a particulate?

“Particulate” is a general name given to a tiny solid or liquid particle or piece of matter. It usually refers to particles in the air (airborne particulates).

Where do particulates come from?

There are many sources for particulates in the air. Among them are soil, plants, fires, and road dust.

A major man-made type is fumes from combustion processes and products, like tobacco smoke, car exhaust, power plants, wood stoves, oil burners or other heating systems. Even burning candles or oil in lanterns can be sources of particulates.

A second major type is dust. This includes dust from mechanical processes like grinding or sweeping, and common household dust that may include mold, pollen, and small insect parts. Fibrous building material such as fiberglass may also be a source of particulates.

A third major type is mist, like that caused by spray painting.

In general, the smaller and lighter a particulate is, the longer it will stay in the air. A fairly dense particulate, such as lead dust, is likely to stay in the air for a shorter period of time than other particulates. Some particulates, like certain types of fibers or pollen, may stay in the air for very long periods of time, especially if there is air movement caused by occupants, pets, open windows, fans, office equipment, vacuum cleaners, etc.

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What are the possible health effects if I am exposed to particulates?

The health effects can range from none at all to very serious.

For people with allergies, certain types and amounts of particulates, such as mold spores, pet dander, pollen, or dust mites, may cause allergic reactions. Some people can be allergic to material in tobacco smoke and other combustion byproducts. Asthmatic episodes can occur in some people. Examples of allergic symptoms and signs include nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, coughing, runny eyes, throat irritation, rashes and headaches. In severe allergic reactions, death can occur.

Some particulates such as silica, asbestos fibers, and coal dust can cause permanent lung damage, with symptoms and signs like coughing, chronic shortness of breath and fatigue. When inhaled in high enough doses, lead dust can be a major source of lead poisoning in adults who engage in certain activities such as painting and building renovation. It can cause high blood pressure, decreased hearing, reproductive problems, and even death. Tobacco smoke, which contains numerous toxic materials in particulate form, can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema and lung cancer.

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How does a person usually become exposed to airborne particulates?

In order for particulates to pose a health risk, a person must be exposed in such a way that the particulates are drawn into the body. Sometimes, as in childhood lead poisoning, this exposure is through hand-to-mouth behavior in which the lead dust is actually eaten. In most instances, however, exposure comes from inhaling airborne particulates.

The size of the particle often determines where in the body the particle may come to rest and possibly cause health effects. For example, if pollen enters into the breathing zone, it may be captured in the nose or upper airways. The mucous and tiny hairs that line those body airways can capture the pollen, preventing it from entry into the lungs. Smaller particles, such as silica, tobacco smoke, lead, some materials used in office equipment, and combustion by-products get past the nose and upper airways and are deposited in the lungs.

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What detemines whether I may have health effects from particulate exposure?

Airborne particulates are likely to be found in some amounts everywhere—both indoors and outdoors. There are several factors that can help determine the extent of health effects. Among those factors are:

Exposure to particulates and harmful health consequences are more likely to occur

In all of these locations, relatively simple steps can be taken to minimize exposure. A high level of particulates may also be characteristic of larger environments where control is more difficult, such as urban areas with heavy traffic or rural areas with dusty roads or tall grass.

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What can be done to reduce exposure to particulates?

Whether in an office, a factory setting, at home or at school, there are actions that can be taken to reduce exposure.

Where can I get more information?

More information can be obtained from the makers of filters and equipment such as vacuums, respirators, air cleaners, dehumidifiers, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) sysems. Other resources include the internet and organizations and agencies listed in our Indoor Air Quality Resource Guide.

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