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PM10: How Do Coarse Particles (Particulate Matter) Affect Air Quality?

You’ve likely seen the term PM10 floating around when researching air pollution and particulate matter. While PM10's smaller counterpart, PM2.5, often gets more buzz, PM10 is still a significant health threat and air pollutant.

PM10 is just a form of air pollution composed of tiny particles, right? Seems pretty self-explanatory, but there is more to the story. PM10 is a single category full of variety, as PM10 comes from a multitude of sources and in all kinds of forms. Similarly, how is PM10 different from PM2.5, another type of particulate matter?

In today’s article, we are going to shine some light on PM10 and its relationship with air quality.

PM10: How Particulate Matter Pollutes Our Air

1. What is PM10?

2. Where does PM10 come from?

3. PM10 vs. PM2.5

4. What PM10 level is considered healthy?

5. How to protect yourself from PM10

What Is PM10?

The abbreviation PM stands for particulate matter, and the number to the right indicates the particle size. So, PM10 refers to small particles of solid or liquid with a diameter smaller than 10 µm.

For reference, you could fit about 10 of these particles side-by-side in the width of a human hair! Pretty tiny, right?

While other air pollutant categories frequently use chemical formulas and chemical composition, particulate matter is unique in that it’s categorized by size rather than chemical makeup. Comprised of many different substances like mold spores, bacteria, dust, and smoke, PM10 particles are small enough to enter your lungs and cause damage throughout your respiratory tract.

Where Does PM10 Come From?

PM10 can originate from a variety of sources, both indoor and outdoor. The three main source categories are primary human emissions, secondary atmospheric reactions, and natural sources.

As the name implies, primary human sources are cases where particles are directly emitted from human activity. Some examples are the dust blown off of mines, slash-and-burn agriculture, road and construction dust, wood-burning stoves, and fossil fuel power plants.

cranes-construction-dust-pm10

Human activities like mining and construction produce PM10

Humans can also indirectly create PM10 through atmospheric chemical reactions. Other gases can undergo chemical reactions and form particulate matter, such as sulfur dioxide forming sulfates. While some coarse particles are created by such a process, these “secondary” particles are much more common for PM2.5.

There are also a bunch of natural sources of PM10 pollution, including dust storms, wildfires, sea spray, and pollen. For parts of Africa and the Middle East, a significant portion of particle pollution originates from dust blowing in from arid areas.

PM10 pollution chart

Image via https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/what-are-main-sources-urban-air-pollution

PM10 vs. PM2.5

One frequent question people have when learning about particulate matter is the difference between PM10 and PM2.5.

The key differentiator between these two particle types is size. PM10 contains particles 10 µm in diameter or small, while PM2.5 only includes particles of diameter smaller than 2.5 µm. You may notice that PM10 actually includes PM2.5, much like a nesting doll. When we use the term “coarse particles,” we are mainly referring to particles within PM10 but outside of PM2.5, with diameters between 2.5 µm and 10 µm.

How Does PM10 Affect Air Quality?

As a significant air pollutant, PM10 has a negative relationship with air quality; as PM10 increases in the air, air quality worsens. PM10 readings are factored into overall AQI readings in several countries, such as the USA and China. You may find local AQI values through your government and personalized AQI readings through your air quality monitor.

PM10 particles hurt air quality because of their adverse effects on human health. Because PM10 is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, these particles can adversely impact your respiratory and cardiovascular system. Coarse particles don’t cause inflammation of the brain, as fine and ultra fine particles do, but they contribute to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, and allergies.

What PM10 Level Is Considered Healthy?

This is a bit of a trick question. Technically, there isn’t a safe level of PM10, as any amount of particulate matter in your air isn’t a good thing.

However, completely eliminating PM10 from your life isn’t a practical option. You will be exposed to coarse particles in some way during your day, but there are some guidelines you can follow to determine if the air is safe. Below, we’ve listed the EPA’s PM10 breakpoints for your reference:

EPA's PM10 Breakpoints

  AQI PM10 (in µg/m³)
Good 0-50 0-54
Moderate 51-100 55-154
Unhealthy for sensitive individuals 101-150 155-254
Unhealthy 151-200 255-354
Very unhealthy 201-300 355-424
Hazardous 301-400 425-504
Hazardous 401-500 505-604
Hazardous 501-999 605-9999

Keeping your exposure to PM10 concentrations below 54.0 µg/m³ is the best way to prevent any short or long-term health effects from developing.

How To Protect Yourself From PM10

So, what are some ways to protect yourself from PM10? Luckily, there are several ways to do this:

Check your local AQI readings

One of the simplest ways to protect yourself from PM10 pollution is to check your local AQI readings before venturing out. Armed with this knowledge, you will know if it’s safe to spend time outside exercising or playing with your kids. You can often find these values online or through air quality apps like the U.S.’s AirNow and Kaiterra’s own air quality app.

Wear a pollution mask

Sometimes, braving a pollution-heavy day is unavoidable. When this occurs, it’s best to wear a pollution mask. While pollution masks won’t filter out all of the PM10 dust floating in the air, good-quality pollution masks do keep out the majority when appropriately fitted. If you do go out when PM10 levels are high, wearing a pollution mask will protect you from the worst of it.

Use an air quality monitor

Particle pollution isn’t just an outdoor occurrence. In many cases, the air quality in your home can be far worse than ambient air quality, and knowing your local AQI alone won’t protect you from indoor PM10, especially if you use certain appliances like wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, and candles that release particulate matter into your home.

laser-egg-co2-5

 

Air quality monitors provide data specific to your home, letting you know the exact air quality conditions you and your family are living in. With this tailored air quality data, you can make effective decisions to protect yourself, including when to turn on your air purifier, when it’s safe to open the windows, and where your indoor pollution is coming from. Speaking of air purifiers...

Pick up an air purifier

Air purifiers are great ways to directly remove PM10 from your air. Since most of us spend the majority of our lives indoors, taking care to eliminate PM10 from your home is paramount.

There are several types of air purifiers out on store shelves, but for effective air purification, you should make sure your purifier has a legitimate HEPA filter (and be wary of ionic purifiers in general). For more information about air purifiers, check out our FAQs.

Keep your home spick-and-span

Keeping your house clean is one of the most basic ways to limit exposure to PM10 inside your own home. Pollutants like dander, mold spores, and dust are all forms of PM10 readily thwarted by regular cleaning.

This rule applies to your tech, too. An air purifier will do more harm than good if it's full of mold, and your humidifier can also be a big polluter. Changing out the filters in your purifier and washing out your humidifier at least once a week will help prevent mold from taking root and dust from spreading around your home.


As a form of particulate matter, PM10 is only one chunk of the air pollutants circulating in the air we breathe. For the rundown on air pollution and what you need to know, take a look at our air pollution page!

Air Pollution: What You Need to Know

 

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