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When we think of causes of cancer, many of us think of air pollution but most of us don't think of dust. A new study finds that fine-particle air pollution is linked to a variety of cancers and also the risk of premature birth.

All around the world, air pollution is wreaking havoc on health. Experts at the World Health Organizations do not have data from every country, but in the countries that do collect air pollution data, four out of five residents of cities face levels of pollution greater than recommended as safe. More than 98 percent of residents of cities with populations over 100,000 in low or middle income countries suffer serious health risk.

Experts place the blame for deteriorating health in cities all over the planet on particulate matter. Particulate matter pollution or dust pollution of the air is a well-known contributor to heart disease and cancer that most of us never give a second thought. How you choose the place you live, whether it's in a dusty area or not, can have a huge impact on your long-term health.

What Is Particulate Matter Pollution?

Just about everybody is familiar with particulate matter in the air. When you can see dust in the air, that's particulate matter. When you can feel the spray from an ocean wave, that's also particulate matter. Pollen is also particulate matter. In the "Smoky" Mountains, trees emit so much pollen in the spring that they appear to be covered with smoke. For that matter, smoke itself is also particulate matter.

The difference between particulate matter and particulate matter pollution is the size of the particles in the air. Some visible particulate matter is so bulky that it gets stuck in the cilia, tiny hairs, of our noses. Even if we inhale it, it is too bulky to reach the innermost passages in the lungs. Tiny particles, however, can penetrate not just deep into the lungs but into the bloodstream itself, carrying other forms of chemical pollution along with them.

What Are Some Examples of Particulate Matter Air Pollution?

"Fine" particulate matter is defined as particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns (millionths of a meter) or less. Inhalable particulate matter has a diameter of 2.5 to 10 microns. Particles larger than 10 microns don't get into the lungs, for the most part. Here are some common examples.

  • The dust you might see settling in the streets after a dust storm or haboob after a summer thunderstorm in the desert has particle sizes of 10 to 100 microns. Particles of this size can cover your cart in grime, but they don't get into your lungs.
  • The dust that settles on your furniture has particle sizes of 1 to 10 microns. You may breathe in some of it, but you probably won't inhale all of it.
  • The dust you see floating in the air around the house when you haven't used your vacuum cleaner in a while has particle sizes of 0.01 to 1 microns. All of this can go into your lungs.
  • Some pollen, most bacteria, most cat dander, most mold spores, and all viruses are small enough to be inhaled.
  • Cement dust, oil smoke, auto engine particulates, fly ash, coal ash, soot, and compounds released from wood fires and kerosene are all small enough to be inhaled.
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