Particulate Matter and Outdoor Air Pollution

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
Last Updated: 
December 2014

Air quality is determined by the level of pollutants in the air. Air quality is affected by the types and amount of pollutants released into the air, weather conditions like wind speed, precipitation (rain and snow), and temperature, and topography, such as local mountains.

The levels of pollutants in the air can vary greatly from one location to the next and from 1 hour to the next. Several pollutants are measured at outdoor monitoring stations in the province and compared against standards and guidelines.

What is particle pollution?

Particulate matter (PM) refers to small solid or liquid particles floating in the air. These particles can be made up of different substances, including carbon, sulphur, nitrogen and metal compounds.

Generally, smaller particles are thought to be more harmful to health than larger particles because they can move deeper into the respiratory tract, including the lungs. For this reason, fine particles which have diameters less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) are linked to more serious health effects than larger particles. PM2.5 is about one-eighth the diameter of a human hair.

PM10 includes fine particles as well as coarse particles that range in size from 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter. The coarse particles tend to stay in the upper parts of our respiratory tract, such as the nose and throat.

What causes particle pollution?

Any form of burning, also known as combustion, can lead to particle pollution.

One of the largest sources of particulate matter in B.C. is residential wood burning. Wood smoke may come from sources such as a fireplace or wood stove in a home, all open burning of vegetative matter, backyard burning or certain sources at wood products industry facilities.

Other sources of particulate matter include all mobile vehicles, especially those with diesel engines, road dust, certain industries, furnaces, and tobacco smoke.

The harmful effects of tobacco smoke are well known, and as a result, many B.C. municipalities have placed restrictions on smoking in public places.

How dangerous is particle pollution?

Particulate matter is considered the air pollutant of greatest concern to human health in B.C. Research has shown that exposure to PM can lead to increased days lost from work or school, emergency room visits, hospital stays, and deaths.

Both short and long-term exposures to PM can lead to the worsening of heart and lung disease. It can also cause premature (early) death, particularly among people who have a higher risk of being affected by particle pollution.

Those most likely to be affected by particle pollution include:

  • children;
  • older adults; and
  • those with heart or lung disease, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How can I reduce particle pollution?

You can reduce the levels of particulate matter pollution by reducing the amount of particulate matter produced through smoke, and by reducing vehicle emissions.

Reduce the amount of particulate matter produced through smoke:

  • Stop smoking; if you do smoke, do not smoke indoors.
  • Mulch garden refuse instead of burning it.
  • Limit the use of fireplaces and wood stoves; when using these appliances, make sure that wood is being burned properly. Wood that is well seasoned instead of wet or green should be used. Stoves should also meet CSA (Canadian Standards Association) or EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) emission standards.
  • Switch to cleaner burning appliances. For example, pellet stoves produce less particulate matter than traditional wood stoves.
  • Take action to reduce wildfires. Practice safe backyard burning and careful use of campfires.

For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #65c Indoor Air Quality: Combustion By-products.

Reduce vehicle emissions and increase fuel efficiency:

  • Diesel vehicles, including trucks, are a key source of fine particles. Reduce diesel emissions by replacing older engines with newer and cleaner engines.
  • Walk, cycle, take public transit and carpool whenever possible.
  • Pay attention to recommended maintenance schedules for your vehicle.

For More Information

For more information on particulate matter and your health, visit the following websites:

BCCDC logo

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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