Clearing the air: a review of the effects of particulate matter air pollution on human health

J Med Toxicol. 2012 Jun;8(2):166-75. doi: 10.1007/s13181-011-0203-1.


The World Health Organization estimates that particulate matter (PM) air pollution contributes to approximately 800,000 premature deaths each year, ranking it the 13th leading cause of mortality worldwide. However, many studies show that the relationship is deeper and far more complicated than originally thought. PM is a portion of air pollution that is made up of extremely small particles and liquid droplets containing acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. PM is categorized by size and continues to be the fraction of air pollution that is most reliably associated with human disease. PM is thought to contribute to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease by the mechanisms of systemic inflammation, direct and indirect coagulation activation, and direct translocation into systemic circulation. The data demonstrating PM's effect on the cardiovascular system are strong. Populations subjected to long-term exposure to PM have a significantly higher cardiovascular incident and mortality rate. Short-term acute exposures subtly increase the rate of cardiovascular events within days of a pollution spike. The data are not as strong for PM's effects on cerebrovascular disease, though some data and similar mechanisms suggest a lesser result with smaller amplitude. Respiratory diseases are also exacerbated by exposure to PM. PM causes respiratory morbidity and mortality by creating oxidative stress and inflammation that leads to pulmonary anatomic and physiologic remodeling. The literature shows PM causes worsening respiratory symptoms, more frequent medication use, decreased lung function, recurrent health care utilization, and increased mortality. PM exposure has been shown to have a small but significant adverse effect on cardiovascular, respiratory, and to a lesser extent, cerebrovascular disease. These consistent results are shown by multiple studies with varying populations, protocols, and regions. The data demonstrate a dose-dependent relationship between PM and human disease, and that removal from a PM-rich environment decreases the prevalence of these diseases. While further study is needed to elucidate the effects of composition, chemistry, and the PM effect on susceptible populations, the preponderance of data shows that PM exposure causes a small but significant increase in human morbidity and mortality. Most sources agree on certain "common sense" recommendations, although there are lonely limited data to support them. Indoor PM exposure can be reduced by the usage of air conditioning and particulate filters, decreasing indoor combustion for heating and cooking, and smoking cessation. Susceptible populations, such as the elderly or asthmatics, may benefit from limiting their outdoor activity during peak traffic periods or poor air quality days. These simple changes may benefit individual patients in both short-term symptomatic control and long-term cardiovascular and respiratory complications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / etiology
  • Humans
  • Lung / drug effects
  • Lung / physiology
  • Particulate Matter / adverse effects*
  • Respiration / drug effects


  • Particulate Matter