The Particulate Matter (PM) Air Pollution Quiz

The Particulate Matter (PM) Air Pollution Quiz

By 2010, The Clean Air Act of 1970 caused the USA to reduce total emissions of six principal air pollutants by more than 41 percent, (while GDP increased by more than 64 percent). Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for those six common air pollutants: 1) ground-level ozone, 2) carbon monoxide, 3) lead, 4) sulfur dioxide, 5) nitrogen dioxide and 6) particulate matter (PM). Let’s take a closer look at one of those pollutants, PM.

In previous studies, Harvard researchers discovered a reduction in short-term exposure to particulate matter from coal-burning power plants could avoid 20,000 deaths a year (some sources say 30,000). All it would take, they stated, would be to install scrubbers on coal-burning power plants that don’t have them, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Fortunately, however, the EPA does set standards for various types of PM and monitors the air over the course of days, months and years to see that safe levels are maintained. We just wish those standards were even stricter. Why? Here’s a multiple-choice quiz:

Even at the levels of PM pollution the EPA considers acceptable, there’s still an increased risk of:

  1. Dementia
  2. Loss of bone density
  3. Type 2 diabetes
  4. Kidney disease
  5. Early death due to heart and lung problems
  6. All of the above

If you guessed F. All of the above, you are today’s winner.

A study published in Translational Psychiatry says exposure to PM in the air triggers negative interactions with APOE alleles (a gene that shows a propensity for Alzheimer’s) in your genetic makeup and could trigger epigenetic changes that may contribute to the acceleration of brain aging and Alzheimer’s, most notably in older women.

Loss of bone density
An article published in The Lancet analyzed two independent studies. Both showed the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis became greater, especially among the elderly, in areas with higher PM concentration. Cities often have the higher PM2·5 concentrations (those small particles permeate the lungs most insidiously) and their populations were especially prone to osteoporosis-related injuries.

Type 2 diabetes
In 2016, the publication Diabetes cited a German study that found long-term exposure to PM air pollution was directly related to an increase in the number of people who developed insulin resistance, an early marker for type 2 diabetes. Again, exposure within EPA standards posed a slight risk.

Kidney disease
Reuters Health reported in September of 2017 that researchers at the St. Louis VA Health Care system found that even at the EPAs current standards, PM concentrations are associated with significant risk of kidney disease. Additionally, they found the higher levels of PM were associated with an increased risk of end-stage renal disease.

Early deaths due to heart and lung problems
The EPA’s position: “Exposure to [particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter] can affect both your lungs and your heart. Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems [including] premature death in people with heart or lung disease.” Non-fatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma and overall decreased lung function round out the list as problems because of PM.

So, what can you do? Remember that there’s no such thing as “clean coal” and natural gas fracking sites release huge amounts of methane, trapping 20 to 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide—and that’s really bad for air quality. The sooner we move to non-polluting renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower, and the sooner and more completely scrubbers are on coal plants and fracking becomes cleaner, the sooner we can clean up the air and breathe easier. Because as the American Lung Association puts it, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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