How Fine Particulate Matter in the air you breathe ruins your health

PM2.5 is known to carry toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
How Fine Particulate Matter in the air you breathe ruins your health
How Fine Particulate Matter in the air you breathe ruins your health

As a pulmonologist, I see a lot of patients with respiratory problems and air pollution levels in the city concern me. According to newspaper reports, “air pollution is a leading cause of death in India with about 1.1 million premature deaths occurring from air pollution-related diseases in 2015”. It said the long-term exposure to polluted air contributed to 4.2 million premature deaths and to a loss of 103 million healthy years of life in 2015, making air pollution the fifth highest cause of death among all health risks, including smoking, diet, and high blood pressure.

Over the years that I have been advocating for increased awareness on air pollution, clean air programs and better patient care, I wanted to share, as an expert, the health impacts of Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) and why it’s important for citizens to protect themselves.

What is Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5)?

Particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (more than 100 times thinner than a human hair) are called PM2.5, or fine particles. PM2.5 is known to carry toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The key documented sources of PM2.5 pollution are automobile exhaust, burning of coal, burning garbage and landfill, smelting and processing of metals. They remain suspended in the ambient air for longer durations in comparison to other pollutants and travel great distances. PM2.5 particles are lighter and go deeper into the lungs and cause greater damage in the long term.

How does PM2.5 enter our bodies?

Particulate Matter enters our respiratory system (lungs) through the nose and throat. The larger particulate matter (PM10) is eliminated through coughing, sneezing and swallowing. PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs and it can travel all the way to the alveoli.

What are the health consequences of exposure to PM2.5?

According to the existing scientific and medical literature, exposure to fine particles is linked to: Increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing; Aggravated asthma; Development of chronic bronchitis; Irregular heartbeat; Non-fatal heart attacks; Aggravation of heart and lung diseases; Premature death in people with heart or lung disease; Possibly linked to lung cancer deaths, dementia, infant mortality and developmental problems such as low birth weight in children.

Who is most at risk?

Vulnerable populations are most at risk due to air pollution; this would generally be elderly, children and pregnant women. In addition, people with heart or lung diseases have predisposed conditions that make them vulnerable.

Generally, elderly populations have greater prevalence of heart and lung disease and hence are more at risk. Children are more vulnerable and prone to diseases due to air pollution as they are more likely to be active, breathe more air per kilo body weight and their bodies are still developing.

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(Dr. Hisamuddin Papa is a Pulmonologist and Founder of Huma Specialists Hospital, Research Center Pvt Ltd and Huma Lung Foundation, Chennai)

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