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Startling new data links common environmental factor to brain damage and cancer: 'It has completely crept under the radar'

"It is a global public health emergency."

“It is a global public health emergency.”

Photo Credit: iStock

You can't see it, but it's in the air, threatening our health — it could even creep inside your home when all the doors and windows are shut. 

PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, is a type of pollution that is estimated to cause nearly nine million premature deaths globally each year, according to one study. That's nearly three times more than previous estimates.

What's happening?

In 2012, scientists estimated that fine particulate matter — called PM2.5 because its particles measure less than 2.5 millionths of a meter — caused 3.2 million premature deaths each year.

Now, as more information is discovered about PM2.5's health impacts, that estimate has jumped to 8.9 million annual deaths, according to one 2018 study.

Why is PM2.5 pollution concerning?

More than 90% of the world's population lives in places where air pollution is above World Health Organization guidelines. In 2018, The Guardian relayed comments from Dr. Maria Neira, a director with WHO, who said: "It is a global public health emergency."

PM2.5 in particular has been tied to a number of serious health issues. For instance, indoor and outdoor pollution is linked to a number of cancers, including those of the cervix, breast, lung, kidney, and bladder.

Additionally, scientists have linked PM2.5 exposure to lower cognitive function. One study found that children exposed to legally acceptable levels of three types of pollution, including fine particulate matter, showed signs of altered brain development during a crucial time of development.

Air pollution can also cause other health problems like stroke, ischemic heart disease, COPD, lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections.

According to The Guardian, air pollution researchers have been surprised to discover the huge impact of wood burners on the air in Western cities. "It has completely crept under the radar," Gary Fuller, with King's College London, told the publication. 

The article stated that 40% of particles in British cities come from wood burning, which is more than double that from vehicles. In Dublin, wood and peat burning produce 70% of the particles.

What's being done about PM2.5 pollution?

Statistician and geneticist Dorothy L. Robinson said that even low-cost actions can yield substantial benefits. For example, a 40% decline in PM2.5 pollution because of the reduction of wood smoke in Tasmania lowered wintertime deaths from respiratory disease by 28% and cardiovascular disease deaths by 20%.

Luckily, in 2021, the WHO lowered its standard for acceptable levels of fine particulate matter pollution, which is another step in the right direction.

You can protect yourself by investing in a special air filter for your home. For fine particulate matter, you'll need to use a HEPA filter.

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