Particulate Matter in the Air Can Be Harmful to Your Health: Do You Need a Sensor?


Jun. 10 2023, Published 11:14 a.m. ET

Woman on couch in background and particulate matter sensor in forground.
Source: iStock

With the smokey haze from the Canadian wildfires blanketing much of the East Coast, there’s a lot of talk about particulate matter in the air. Time reported on June 7, 2023 that the level of particulates in the New York City air was 60 times the recommended levels due to the fires.

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Let’s delve into what particulate matter is, how it may be harmful, and whether it makes sense for you to invest in a particulate matter sensor for protection.

Pollution in Los Angeles.
Source: Getty Images
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What is particulate matter (PM2.5)?

Particulate matter (PM2.5) is an air pollutant of solid particles and liquid droplets caused by various sources such as vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, burning fuels, wildfires, and gases from power plants. It is also produced by everyday indoor activities such as burning candles, cooking on a stove, or lighting a fire in the fireplace.

PM2.5 particulates are tiny: 2.5 microns or less in width. To give some reference to how small they are, there are about 25,000 microns in one inch. Thousands of tiny particulates could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

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How is particulate matter harmful to your health?

Because of the minute size of PM2.5 particulate matter, you can inhale them without even knowing it. They can travel through your respiratory tract and into your lungs. They may even be able to enter your bloodstream.

Woman blowing her nose.
Source: Getty Images
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The short-term health effects of exposure to particulate matter include coughing, sneezing, runny nose, shortness of breath, and irritation to your eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Long-term exposure to particulate matter can affect your heart and lungs. It has been linked to heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and lung cancer.

The National Ambient Air Standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the standard for particulate matter exposure at 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3) per day and 12 µg/m3 per year.

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What is a particulate matter sensor?

A particulate matter sensor is a piece of equipment that measures how much fine particulates are in the air at any given time. The sensors typically use light scattering technology, where a beam of light is passed through a sample of air. Particles scatter the light, and that scattered light is measured and used to calculate the concentration of particles in the air.

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Do you need a particulate matter sensor?

If you have respiratory health conditions like asthma or bronchitis, having a particulate matter sensor to measure your air quality may be a good idea. Getting a sensor may also be wise for people living in major cities more prone to pollution.

However, you probably don't need a particulate matter sensor of your own, since you can simply look up your local air quality online.

One way to check the air quality in your location is at the EPA’s AirNow website. AirNow uses the official U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) to determine the air quality in any area across the country. Just enter your city, state, or zip code for information.

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