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Air Pollution: What Is Particulate Matter And How Does It Affect The Human Body

Particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone are the major contributors to air pollution and determine the varied levels of air quality index. What is particulate matter and what are its harmful effects?

Air Pollution: What Is Particulate Matter And How Does It Affect The Human Body

New Delhi: World Health Organisation (WHO) in its Global Ambient Air Quality Database found that 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world in terms of PM 2.5 levels in 2016 are in India. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country, has four of the 14 worst performing cities in terms of air pollution – Kanpur, Lucknow, Agra and Varanasi. The state of the poor air quality and ignorance about it is evident with cities of India going about life oblivious of the air quality.

14 Indian cities featured in the list of top 20 cities with severely high levels of air pollution

14 Indian cities featured in the list of top 20 cities with severely high levels of air pollution

Also Read: Indian Cities Top The List Of Most Polluted Cities In The World, 9 lakh People Die In India Due To Air Pollution: WHO

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the annual average PM10 concentration of Delhi in 2018 was 223 micrograms per cum (μg/m3) which is 3.72 times higher than the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) that is 60 μg/m3 and 11.15 times more than WHO’s specified limit of 20 μg/m3. As far as PM2.5 concentration is concerned, Delhi’s annual average was 121 μg/m3, three times higher than NAAQS standard of 40 μg/m3 and 12.1 times of WHO’s level of 10 μg/m3.

As pollution oscillates between ‘poor’ and ‘moderate’ and citizens breathe a sigh of relief along with some fresh air, NDTV speaks to Sunil Dahiya, Clean Air and Energy Analyst, to understand the commonly used term ‘particulate matter’, its different kinds and how does it affect the human body.

Also Read: Demonstrating The Impact Of Air Pollution On Health, Lungs Installed In Lucknow Turn Jet-Black In Five Days

Note: Particulate matter is one of the parameters to measure air quality index. Gases like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone too contribute to different levels of air quality in the city.

What is Particulate Matter or PM?

In simple terms, Particulate Matter or PM is a collective name for all the particles present in the air. While the larger particles like dust are noticeable, smaller particles that are released from vehicular emissions, cigarette smoke and others are not visible.

No matter you are able to see these particles or not, the fact is, they are damaging to our body. Also, the smaller the particle size, the higher the penetration of it will be in our body. Today, no organ, not even brain, has been left untouched by different kinds of PM, says Mr Dahiya.

Also Read: Air Pollution Kills One In 10 Children Under The Age Of Five Globally: WHO Report

What are the different kinds of Particulate Matter (PM)?

Particulate matter is usually classified on the basis of size and accordingly, it is categorised into four groups – PM10, PM2.5, PM1 and ultra-fine particulate matter.

PM10: PM10 pollutants are particles equal to 10 microns or one tenth of the diameter of a human hair. PM10 and sizes above get filtered at the level of the nose, courtesy body’s natural filter which does not allow the larger particles to go inside. These kinds of particles only cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.

Our body’s natural barriers – nasal hair and mucous membrane trap these particles and stop them from entering our body, says Mr Dahiya.

PM2.5: Thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair, a particle size between 2.5 and 10 can pass through body’s natural barriers, and enter the lungs and cause clogging there. Hence, it causes serious damage to lung development and gives birth to lung diseases.

It is only because of their small size, pollutants ranging between 2.5 and 10 are able to enter deep into our body. The source of these pollutants is majorly vehicular emission, says Mr Dahiya.

Also Read: Expert Talk: Remember To Consider These Three Things While Buying An Air Pollution Mask

PM1 and Ultra-fine particulate matter: Particles less than 2.5 microns are the most dangerous of the lot. These particles enter our bloodstream and travel into different parts of the body through the blood circulation, affecting every organ.

Our brain is said to have a barrier that does not allow foreign particles to enter inside, but ultra-fine particles are now crossing that barrier as well and that is the reason, individuals are witnessing short term memory loss. For instance, I’ll be carrying my mobile phone with me, but I’ll still be searching for it, says Mr Dahiya.

Note: Currently, monitoring stations in our country do not measure PM1. Few researchers have started talking about PM less than 2.5 and the need to measure PM1 and ultra-fine particles like 0.1, 0.5.

Also Read: Combating Indoor Air Pollution: 5 Plants To Make Your Home Clean And Green

Where do these hazardous particles come from?

Explaining the sources of different pollutants, Mr Dahiya says,

One cannot isolate sources depending on the size of particulate matter. It is a mixed bag. Usually, natural dust storm is associated with PM 10, but finer dust particles can make for PM 2.5. Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of various gases emitted from power plants and getting mixed together.

From fossil fuel consumption in power plants, transport sector, to biomass burning in rural areas, garbage burning, dust from construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, to dirty doormats and curtains in our home, each and everything contributes to air pollution.

Also Read: #BeatAirPollution: Stark Facts About Air Pollution Crisis You Need To Know

How do these pollutants affect the human body?

The effects of varied particulate matter can be both short term – coughing, sneezing, headache, anxiety, immunity level going down and an individual ending up catching seasonal diseases on a regular basis and long term effects could lead to heart diseases, stroke, reduced lung capacity, lung cancer, respiratory diseases like asthma, and bronchitis.

Individuals these days are facing difficulty in doing even simple maths and short term memory loss due to exposure to high levels of pollutants, signs off Mr Dahiya.

Also Read: Swachh Guide: What Is ODF?

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollutionclean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.

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