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PM10

Do you suffer from hayfever? If you do, you'll know that it's caused by an allergic reaction to pollen.

Pollen is a powdery yellow substance made of microscopic grains. Each grain contains a male gamete that can fertilise a female ovule.

During spring, plants release pollen. It's dispersed by the wind, reaching other plants, and unfortunately, our noses.

Pollen contributes to airborne particulate matter (known as PM). PM is not one single pollutant. It's a mixture of many compounds – ions, metals, organic compounds, and more. Because the elemental composition of airborne particulate matter varies so much, it's classified according to its diameter.


PM10: Meaning

Let's begin with a definition.

PM10 refers to inhalable particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres and below.

The symbol for micrometres is μm.

A micrometre is one-millionth of a metre (0.000001 metres). To compare, a single human hair is about 70 micrometres across. PM10 particles are too small to see with the naked eye.

Sources of PM10 Pollution

When a fuel burns in plenty of air, it undergoes complete combustion. All elements in the fuel fully react with the oxygen in the air:

hydrocarbon + oxygen carbon dioxide + water

Incomplete combustion occurs when the supply of air is poor. The elements in the fuel cannot fully react with the oxygen in the air. So, this reaction takes place instead:

hydrocarbon + oxygen → carbon monoxide + carbon + water

A major source of PM10 pollution is incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Sources of hydrocarbons include:

  • Coal

  • Wood

  • Diesel

  • Crop waste


PM10 doesn't only come from incomplete combustion. Other sources include:

  • Dust from construction sites

  • Landfill

  • Agriculture

  • Wildfires

  • Industrial sources

  • Pollen

  • Fragments of bacteria

Half of the UK's particulate matter originates from anthropogenic sources, such as domestic wood burning and vehicle tyre wear.

PM10: Impacts and Examples

High levels of PM10 pollution in the atmosphere can have a range of negative effects.

Respiratory Disease

Short-term exposure to PM10 pollution has been associated with flare-ups of pre-existing respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This can lead to hospitalisation.

Long-term exposure is associated with mortality from respiratory diseases, and lung cancer.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died after an asthma attack in 2013, at just nine years old. She lived near one of London's busiest roads, the South Circular. The coroner concluded that she died of asthma, which was exacerbated by excessive air pollution. Ella is thought to be the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on a coroner's report.

Changing Atmospheric Albedo

Albedo is a measure of the reflectivity of a surface.

Albedo is measured on a scale from 0 to 1. The higher the albedo, the more reflective a surface.

Some particulate matter has a high albedo, reflecting solar energy away from Earth. This leads to a reduction in atmospheric temperature and light availability. Surface temperatures drop considerably, and plants struggle to photosynthesise, often resulting in famine.

Volcanic eruptions spew particulates, such as ash and dust, into the atmosphere. If the eruption is severe enough, it can lead to a volcanic winter where sunlight and temperatures decline.

The worst volcanic winter in human history occurred in the year 536, after an eruption in Iceland. Parts of the world experienced 18 months of darkness and unusually cold temperatures. Crops failed, leading to widespread famine and starvation.

Particulate Matter and Ice

In the atmosphere, particulate matter has a high albedo. But when dark-coloured particulate matter lands on ice, the albedo of the ice decreases. A lower albedo enhances melting, contributing to sea level rise.

Smogs

Smog is air pollution that reduces visibility.

The term was first coined in the 1900s, combining 'smoke' and 'fog'. Incomplete combustion of coal lead to smogs in cities.

Modern-day smogs happen in winter during temperature inversions. Usually, temperature declines with altitude. But during a temperature inversion, cold air is trapped at the ground underneath a layer of warmer air. The warm air acts like a lid, trapping particulate matter near the ground. Winter smogs are further exacerbated by households burning wood and coal for extra heat during these cold conditions.

The Great Smog of London took place in December 1952. The weather preceding the smog was colder than usual, so people burned extra coal and wood. On the 5th of December, a temperate inversion formed, trapping huge amounts of particulate matter close to the ground. The smog disrupted travel, suffocated cattle, and killed around 4000 people.

Monitoring PM10 Levels

High levels of PM10 pose a threat to health, especially for elderly or vulnerable individuals. So, it's important to regularly monitor PM10 and share related health guidance.

How Are PM10 Levels Measured?

Particulate matter can be measured using a gravimetric method.

Gravimetric means relating to the measure of weight.

Particles are collected by drawing air onto a filter. Scientists weigh the filter, and compare it to its original mass.

This method is highly accurate (it's used by regulatory bodies) and it allows the particles to be analysed to learn about their chemical composition. On the other hand, it doesn't produce real-time data, and it requires trained staff to operate.

Alternatively, particulate matter can be measured using an optical particle counter. It uses a laser diode to illuminate particles, and a photodetector to measure how the light is scattered by these particles. Optical particle counters can be calibrated against gravimetric instruments to increase their accuracy.

PM10 is measured in micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3).

Safe PM10 Levels

In the UK, PM10 concentrations must not exceed:

  • An annual average of 40 µg/m3

  • A 24-hour average of 50 µg/m3 more than 35 times in a year

The Daily Air Quality Index functions like a weather forecast, informing the population of the predicted air pollution levels. It categorises pollution concentrations into bands, which have associated health advice.

PM10 Concentration (µg/m3)Air Pollution BandingHealth Advice for the General Population
0-50LowN/A
51-75ModerateN/A
76-100HighAnyone experiencing discomfort should reduce activity, especially outdoors.
101+Very HighReduce physical exertion, especially outdoors. Be aware of symptoms such as coughing and sore throats.

PM10 levels declined during the UK lockdowns due to reduced travel and vehicle use.

Controlling PM10 Pollution

In the UK, urban and roadside levels of PM10 have been declining since the 1990s. How has PM10 pollution been limited?

  • The Clean Air Act (1956): after the Great Smog of London, the Clean Air Act set out to control smoke pollution. The Act created Control Orders, which gave local authorities the power to limit emissions. In large urban areas, Smoke Zones were established. In these areas, emissions of smoke, grit, dust, or fumes could be banned. Following the Act, pollution-related death rates declined significantly.
  • Coal Treatment: tar can be removed from coal before burning using an emulsifying agent. The liquid product can be used for cleaning tanks, heat exchangers, and air coolers.
  • Electrostatic Precipitators: suspended particles are removed from gas streams using electrical energy. The energy charges the particles either positively or negatively. They are then attracted to wires or collector plates carrying the opposite charge.

  • Cyclone Separators: particulate matter is removed from air using centrifuge-like equipment. Dirty air is fed into a chamber. The inside of the chamber creates a spiral vortex, similar to a tornado. Lighter components of the gas have less inertia, so are influenced by the vortex and travel up it. Heavier particulate matter has more inertia and is not influenced by the vortex.

  • Bag Filters: as these bags fill up, water passes through the tiny holes in the material and leaves behind unwanted particles.

I hope that this article has explained PM10 pollution for you. PM10 refers to inhalable particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres and below. High levels of particulate pollution can cause respiratory diseases, affect atmospheric albedo, and cause smogs. Therefore, it's important to monitor and limit levels of PM10.

PM10 - Key takeaways

  • Airborne particulate matter is a mixture of many compounds, so it's classified according to its size. PM10refers to inhalable particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres and below.
  • A major source of PM10 pollution is incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, such as coal, wood, diesel, and crop waste.
  • High levels of PM10 pollution lead to respiratory illness, changing atmospheric albedo, and smogs.
  • PM10 levels are measured using either gravimetric methods or optical particle counters. Data from these instruments can be used to predict air pollution level and issue any associated health advice.
  • PM10 pollution can be limited via legislation, coal treatment, and equipment such as electrostatic precipitators, cyclone separators, and bag filters.

1. Ann Gibbons, Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive', Science, 2018

2. Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, What is the Daily Air Quality Index?, UK Air, 2022

3. Emma Reynolds, Air pollution a cause of UK girl's death, finds global landmark ruling, CNN, 2020

4. Jennifer McAlpine, How Big is a Micron?, Benchmark, 2020

5. The Meteorological Office, The Great Smog of 1952, 2022

6. National Statistics, Concentrations of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), 2022

Frequently Asked Questions about PM10

PM10 refers to particulate matter pollution up to 10 micrometres in diameter.

High levels of PM10 pollution can affect individuals with respiratory diseases. Long-term exposure is associated with mortality and lung cancer.

In the UK, PM10 levels should not exceed an annual average of 40 µg/m3, or a 24-hour average of 50 µg/m3 more than 35 times in a year.

Above 50 µg/mPM10 can affect those with respiratory illnesses.

PM2.5 refers to particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres and below, while PM10 refers to particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres and below.

Final PM10 Quiz

Question

What does PM10 mean?

Show answer

Answer

PM10 refers to inhalable particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres and below.

Show question

Question

How big is a micrometre?

Show answer

Answer

A micrometre is one-millionth of a metre.

Show question

Question

What is a major source of PM10 pollution?

Show answer

Answer

A major source of PM10 pollution is the incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons.

Show question

Question

What is the word equation for the incomplete combustion of a hydrocarbon?

Show answer

Answer

hydrocarbon + oxygen → carbon monoxide + carbon + water

Show question

Question

What diseases can PM10 pollution affect?

Show answer

Answer

Asthma

Show question

Question

Define albedo.

Show answer

Answer

Albedo is a measure of the reflectivity of a surface.

Show question

Question

If atmospheric PM has a high albedo, what problems can this cause?

Show answer

Answer

Atmospheric PM with a high albedo can lead to a reduction in atmospheric temperature and light availability. Plants struggle to photosynthesise, often resulting in famine.

Show question

Question

Define smog.

Show answer

Answer

Smog is air pollution that reduces visibility.

Show question

Question

Why can smogs happen during temperature inversions?

Show answer

Answer

During temperature inversions, cold air is trapped underneath a layer of warm air. Particulate matter is trapped close to the ground, affecting visibility. 

Show question

Question

PM can be measured using a gravimetric method. How does this work?

Show answer

Answer

Particles are collected by drawing air onto a filter. Scientists weigh the filter, and compare it to its original mass.

Show question

Question

What are some disadvantages of measuring air pollution using the gravimetric method?

Show answer

Answer

High costs

Show question

Question

What is the recommended maximum annual average for levels of PM10 in the UK?

Show answer

Answer

40 µg/m3

Show question

Question

What are Smoke Zones?

Show answer

Answer

Smoke Zones are areas where emissions of smoke, grit, dust, or fumes could be banned

Show question

Question

Which method of pollution control uses a spiral vortex to remove particulates?

Show answer

Answer

Cyclone separators

Show question

Question

How do electrostatic precipitators work?

Show answer

Answer

Electrical energy is applied to gas streams, charging particles either positively or negatively. The charged particles are attracted to wires or collector plates carrying the opposite charge.

Show question

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