Why air pollution known as PM2.5 is so hazardous to your health

High levels of particulate matter 2.5 can lead to health issues like asthma, heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and premature 5% death.

SHARE Why air pollution known as PM2.5 is so hazardous to your health

PM 2.5 in the air comes from lots of different places, including smokestacks.

Illustrations by Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

Each time we take a breath, the outside world finds its way into our body.

One type of thing in the air is called particulate matter.

Particulate matter — often abbreviated as PM — consists of very small particles suspended in the air we breathe.

These particles could be dust or smoke, tiny drops of water or even chemical compounds.


Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

PM is described by its size.

When these particles are very small — about 1/30th the diameter of a human hair — they’re known as PM2.5.

Individual particles may be too small to see, but when levels are high, they can make the air look thick and hazy.


Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

Particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less can enter deep inside a person’s lungs.

But the most health-damaging particles are even smaller. Those with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less are small enough to get into your bloodstream.

The Chicago area has the third-highest level of PM2.5 from diesel in the country, after the Los Angeles and New York City areas.


Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

PM2.5 in the air comes from lots of different places. Some are familiar, like smokestacks.

Others, like trucks or chimneys, may seem less obvious.

High levels of PM2.5 can lead to health issues like asthma, heart attack or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

And an estimated 5% of all premature deaths in Chicago can be attributed to PM2.5.


Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

Not everyone is impacted the same.

Pregnant people, young children, elderly folks and people who exercise outdoors are more likely to be affected when fine particulate matter levels are high.

So how do we begin to get a picture of what’s going on with our air?


Maggie Sivit/WBEZ

One way is by using air sensors. These sensors detect PM2.5 levels in the air and can be placed on bus shelters and other structures.

These sensors already exist in many places across Chicago, and activists are pushing to add even more.

Information from sensors can begin to provide a picture of air quality on a neighborhood level.

Contributing: Derek Kravitz, Dillon Bergin, Brett Chase

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