Air Impact to Health – Do you know what's in the air that you breathe?
What's in the air you breathe?
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The air we breathe can be polluted by a variety of sources, from power plants and other industry located hundreds of miles away, to sources closer to home such as motor vehicles on nearby roads, local industrial plants, and even lawnmowers in our own backyard. Knowing the sources of air pollution is important for effective ways to clean the air as every breath counts.
Scientists are collecting data on a host of pollutants ranging from particulate matter, mercury, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, black carbon (soot), and ammonia. Continuous measurements will provide detailed information on pollutant concentrations over time.
The U.S. Clean Air Act requires EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six common air pollutants. These commonly found air pollutants (also known as "criteria pollutants") are particle pollution (often referred to as particulate matter), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. These pollutants can harm your health and the environment, and cause property damage. Of the six pollutants, particle pollution and ground-level ozone are the most widespread health threats. EPA calls these pollutants "criteria" air pollutants because it regulates them by developing human health-based and/or environmentally-based criteria (science-based guidelines) for setting permissible levels. The set of limits based on human health is called primary standards. Another set of limits intended to prevent environmental and property damage is called secondary standards.
Particulate matter," also known as particle pollution or PM, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.
The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. EPA is concerned about particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller because those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs.
Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects. EPA groups particle pollution into two categories:
"Inhalable coarse particles," such as those found near roadways and dusty industries, are larger than 2.5 micrometers and smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter.
"Fine particles," such as those found in smoke and haze, are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller. These particles can be directly emitted from sources such as forest fires, or they can form when gases emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles react in the air.
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.
These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals. Some particles, known as primary particles are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires. Others form in complicated reactions in the atmosphere of chemicals such as sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides that are emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles. These particles, known as secondary particles, make up most of the fine particle pollution in the country.
EPA regulates inhalable particles (fine and coarse). Particles larger than 10 micrometers (sand and large dust) are not regulated by EPA. More about EPA PM Standards andRegulatory Actions.
Health: Particle pollution contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.
Particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter are known as "fine" particles; those larger than 2.5 micrometers, but less than 10 micrometers, are known as "coarse" particles.
Fine particles are easily inhaled deep into the lungs where they may accumulate, react, be cleared or absorbed.
Scientific studies have linked particle pollution, especially fine particles, with a series of significant health problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.
Particle pollution can cause coughing, wheezing, and decreased lung function even in otherwise healthy children and adults.
Studies estimate that thousands of elderly people die prematurely each year from exposure to fine particles.
The average adult breathes 3,000 gallons of air per day.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and infants are among the most susceptible to many air pollutants. Children have increased exposure compared with adults because of higher minute ventilation and higher levels of physical activity.
Fine particles can remain suspended in the air and travel long distances. For example, a puff of exhaust from a diesel truck in Los Angeles can end up over the Grand Canyon.
Some of the pollutants which form haze have also been linked to serious health problems and environmental damage.
Particle pollution settles on soil and water and harms the environment by changing the nutrient and chemical balance.
Particle pollution, unlike ozone, can occur year-round.