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Particulate Matter, or PM, is a complex mixture that may contain soot, smoke, metals, nitrates, sulfates, dust, water and tire rubber. It can be directly emitted, as in smoke from a fire, or it can form in the atmosphere from reactions of gases such as nitrogen oxides. The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems.
Small particles (known as PM2.5 or fine particulate matter) pose the greatest problems because they can get deep into your lungs and some may even get into your bloodstream. Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart. Scientific studies have linked long-term particle pollution, especially fine particles, with significant health problems including increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing, decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, development of chronic respiratory disease in children, development of chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks and premature death in people with heart or lung disease, including death from lung cancer.
Short-term symptoms can include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. The best way to protect yourself against particulate pollution is to avoid it as much as possible.
The AQI assigns a color to the day’s air quality ranging from good (green) to very unhealthy (purple). The color coded AQI Activity Chart can then be used as a guide to modify outdoor activities when ozone levels are high.
Ground-level Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) react with the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The primary sources of VOCs and NOx are mobile sources, which include cars, trucks, buses, construction equipment and agricultural equipment.
Ground-level ozone reaches its highest level during the afternoon and early evening hours, and high levels occur most often during the summer months. This strong irritant can cause constriction of the airways, forcing the respiratory system to have to work harder in order to provide oxygen. It can also cause other health problems such as aggravated respiratory disease, including emphysema, bronchitis and asthma.
It can also do damage to deep portions of the lungs, even after symptoms such as coughing or a sore throat disappear. Ozone can cause wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache, nausea and can reduce resistance to infection. Some people may also experience increased fatigue and weakened athletic performance.
The best way to protect your health is to remain indoors when ozone levels are high. You can also help protect not only your health, but also the health of others, by taking alternative transportation on days when ozone levels are high.