Peaks in particulate-matter air pollution: how can they be detected and prevented?

Changing concentrations of PM₂.₅ particles, modeled in January 2017 by Prevair. Prevair, CC BY-SA

This winter, France and a large part of Europe were struck by episodes of particulate matter pollution. These microscopic particles are known as PM2.5 and PM10 when they measure less than 2.5 or 10 micrometers (µm) in diameter respectively.

They are proven to be harmful to human health because they enter our respiratory system, and the smallest can even enter our blood flow. According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is the cause of 467,000 premature deaths annually in Europe.

These particles can come from natural sources (sea salt, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, etc.) or human activities (transport, heating, industry, etc.)

What is a pollution peak?

Pollution peaks occur when regulatory warning thresholds, as defined in 2008 by the European Union and transposed to French law in late 2010, are exceeded.

In virtue of these regulations, the first level of severity (known as the “public information and warning threshold”) is reached for PM10 particles when there are ≥50 µg per cubic meter of air (m³) in the atmosphere; the warning level is reached at ≥80 µg/m³.

There is no trigger limit for PM2.5, but just a set maximum amount of 25 µg/m³ on average per year.

However, these regulations have serious limitations. The “mass” concentration thresholds which indicate the total mass of particles in the air and which are used to assess the danger of particulate matter pollution are higher than the levels recommended by the WHO, which have been set for PM10 at 20 µg/m³ on average per year and 50 µg/m³ on average per day, in order to take account of chronic and short-term exposure.

In addition, the only parameter taken into account in European and French regulations concerns mass concentration. The concentration in terms of number (i.e. the number of particles per m³ of air), and the chemical composition are not taken into account for the triggering of warnings.

Lastly, there are no regulations for very small particulate matter (less than 1 µm), which is mainly produced by human activity, even though it is potentially the most harmful.

Comparison of the size of microscopic particles with a hair and grain of sand. US-EPA, CC BY-NC-SA

How are they detected?

In France, the Ministry for the Environment has delegated the task of monitoring air quality and regulated pollutants across the country to certified associations united under Fédération Atmo France. They are supported in this task by the Central Laboratory for the Monitoring of Air Quality.

These associations put in place automatic measurements for the concentration of pollutants, as well as other monitoring measures to allow a better understanding of the phenomena observed, such as the chemical composition of particles, or weather conditions.

These measurements can be combined with approaches for modeling particle concentration, thanks in particular to Prevair, the French forecast platform. Calculating the history of air mass can also be used to reveal the origin of particles, and it is therefore now possible to describe the phenomena at the origin of the increase in concentrations in relative detail.

Explanation of a real case

The graph below, produced from observations by our research department and measurements by Atmo Hauts-de-France, illustrates an example of pollution peaks that affected the local area in January 2017.

During this period, anticyclonic weather conditions contributed to the stagnation of air masses above pollutant-emitting areas. In addition, cooler temperatures led to an increase in emissions (notably linked to domestic wood heating) and the formation of “secondary” particles which formed after chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

Data V. Riffault/SAGE (Cappa and Climibio projects) CC BY-NC-ND, CC BY-NC-ND

The graphs show changes in mass concentrations of PM10 and PM2.5 over a period of several days at the Lille Fives monitoring station, as well as changes in several chemical species measured in PM1 4 km away on the University of Lille campus.

We can see that almost all the particles fell within the PM2.5 proportion, something which rules out natural phenomena such as a dust being blown in from deserts, since such particles mainly fall within the range of 2.5 to 10 µm. Furthermore, the particles in question are generally smaller in size than 1 µm.

The pollution episode began on the evening of January 21 and continued throughout weekend, in spite of a lower level of road traffic. This can be explained by an increase in wood burning (as suggested by the m/z 60 tracer, which is a fragment of levoglucosan, a molecule emitted by pyrolysis of cellulose found in wood).

Wood burning and other forms of combustion (such as traffic or certain industries) also emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as a gas, which can turn into nitric acid (HNO3) through a reaction with hydroxyl radicals (•OH) in the atmosphere.

At sufficiently low temperatures, HNO3 combines with ammonia (NH3) produced by farming activity to form ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) solid. These are known as “secondary particles”.

A slight decrease in concentrations of particulate matter was observed at the end of the weekend, with more favorable weather conditions for the dispersion and elimination of pollutants.

In this episode, the very low concentrations of sulfates rule out an impact from coal power stations in Germany and Eastern Europe. It is therefore definitely a question of local and regional pollution linked to human activity and which accumulated as a result of unfavorable weather conditions.

How can this be avoided?

Since we cannot control the weather conditions, levers of action are primarily based on reducing pollutant emissions.

For example, reducing the formation of secondary particles will entail limiting NO2emissions linked to road traffic through road space rationing measures; for NH3 emissions, action must be taken regarding farming practices (spreading and rearing methods).

Concerning emissions from wood heating, replacing older devices with cleaner ones will enable better burning and fewer particulate matter emissions; this could be accompanied by an investment in housing insulation.

But these measures should not make us forget populations’ chronic exposure to concentrations of particulate matter which exceed the recommended WHO thresholds. This type of pollution is insidious and is damaging to health in the medium and long term, notably with the development of cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer.

This article was originally published in French