Particulate matter, an intangible problem, but what is particulate matter?

Exposure to particles leads to human suffering and high costs. But what are particles really? What makes it so dangerous, and what can you do about it? Paula Bronsveld, Climate and Air Quality program manager at TNO, gives a ‘mini lecture’ on particles and answers the 3 most important questions about particles.

1. What do particles do to your health?

In the Netherlands, 11,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. 4 out of 5 times particles are the cause. Particles lead to human suffering. And do not rule out the social costs either. If you convert the loss of healthy life years into euros, the particle problem in the Netherlands costs 10 to 15 billion euros a year. It is not surprising that TNO has been researching this for years. We are developing technologies to map particles and fight them at source.

Annual loss due to premature death and healthy years due to various reasons in 2015:

In case of loss in healthy life years, air pollution is number 6 between too little exercise and overweight.

“Not all particles are harmful in themselves. It only becomes a problem if it is ultrafine”

Ultra nice and therefore dangerous

“Particles are a collective term for everything that floats in the air and is less than 10 micrometers,” explains Paula Bronsveld. ‘Direct emission of particles into the air is primarily referred to as particles. Below we include the particles caused by humans, such as PAHs and metals. Secondary particles are created by chemical reactions of gases in the atmosphere, such as ammonium nitrate formed from the combination of ammonia from intensive livestock farming and nitrogen dioxide from other sources.

Not all particles are harmful in themselves. It only becomes a problem if it is ultra-fine – less than 0.1 micrometer – or consists of substances that are very harmful to humans. If you are exposed to this, it can penetrate the airways into the bloodstream. ”

2. How are particles created and where do they come from?

Households (mainly through wood burning), industry and agriculture make the largest contribution to particulate emissions in the Netherlands. Other sources include maritime and inland shipping, road traffic and construction. Different sources cause different particle mixtures. And some mixtures are more harmful than others.

Different sources cause different particle mixtures. The TNO is proposing an action plan for continuous improvement.

Bronze field: “Particles containing metals have an increased risk of health effects, especially if the particles are ultrafine. Important sources of metals are wear emissions from road traffic and industrial emissions. There are also health risks with certain organic components, for example in wood smoke. The particulate mixture may also contain harmful components in other combustion processes, such as soot and PAH.

3. What makes particles so dangerous?

The effect of particles on health depends on what exposure to it causes in the body. This depends on the reactivity of the particulate matter. One looks not only at the mass, but also at the shape and size of the particles and at the composition of the particles.

How deep do different particles penetrate the airways?

Bronze field: “The smallest particles, ultrafine particles, are the most dangerous. Not only because they penetrate deep into the body because of their small size, but also because they often remain unaffected when fighting particulate emissions because they are so small. While one hundred particles of particles due to their small size have a much larger reactive surface compared to a much smaller number of larger particles of particles which together have the same mass, therefore the reactivity is much greater for a mixture with many small particles than for a mixture with many large particles. “

Health gain

TNO uses its own technology to measure particulate emissions and has developed computational models to predict dispersion and exposure. For the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, for example, we collect data on emissions of particles from diesel cars. Together with RIVM, we also investigated the relationship between exposure to wood smoke and health problems.

Bronsveld: “We are now even better able to analyze air filters and determine the composition and reactivity of particles. Collecting this information will allow us to combat particulate emissions more effectively than we do now. For this there is a different particle approach required. We have developed a 5-step plan with which we can achieve more health benefits than we already do in the Netherlands. “

Read our vision for a new approach to particles

Download the paper with a concrete 5-step plan


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