Public Lab Wiki documentation

  • 4

Introduction to Particulate Matter

« Back to Frac Sand

Pages in this wiki:

Understanding Particulate Matter
Silica Monitoring
Regulations on PM Monitoring
Collecting Data on Particulate Matter

Background Information

Particulate Matter (PM) is airborne dust and particle pollution that settles onto surfaces and into lungs. As a regulated pollutant PM is shorthand for inhalable and respirable particulate matter, or particulate matter that can stick in the lungs.

Based on size alone, small airborne particles can become lodged in the lungs or even enter the bloodstream. At this size, some non-toxic materials, such as silica, can be carcinogenic.

Historically, most dust was naturally occurring, but at present natural sources of particles such as wind erosion, volcanoes, pollen, and forest fires have been overtaken by human-generated particles from combustion, roads, agriculture, construction, and mining (citation:EPA/600/R-95/115).

Monitoring sources of particle pollution and advocating for their reduction can have positive public health impacts. According to the CDC, a 10% reduction in fine particles could prevent 13,000 deaths annually in the U.S.

Airborne particles we can see


The smallest particles we can see with a naked eye are visible only because they diffract light to make a haze, usually with a reddish-purple tint. We cannot see haze particles directly, however, haze can be monitored as a proxy for small particles. Mold spores, lint, and household dust particles can be seen individually only when reflecting light, as in the rays coming through window into a dark room. Particles of fine sand and soil that are visible can get airborne for short periods of time. Fog are small raindrops falling slowly, and are just barely visible. Of visible particles, only haze-sized particles pose a significant health risk, see Respirable Particles below.

Dust, droplets, & particle size

Almost all airborne particles are either dust (solid particles broken from larger solids) or droplets (liquid particles which grow as they condense gases out of the air). A third category of nanometer-sized particles, ultrafines, are short-lived emissions from combustion.

These three modes, ultrafines, droplets, and dust, are each clustered around a specific size range, such that the sizes of particles in the air are not evenly distributed. Ultrafines are short-lived, forming the center of droplets quickly. Large dust particles are also short lived, settling out. In the middle are mature droplets and fine dust that make up both the bulk of long-lived atmospheric particles and the most worrisome particles because of their respirability.



While some dust comes from biological sources (skin, bacteria, mold, pollen), most comes from dirt and rocks crushed small enough to get airborne. Only dust less than 10 μm can stay airborne for days, and dust less than 5 μm dust can travel for years. Larger dust settles out (called sedimentation), while smaller dust is removed by being washed away in rain or by running into objects (impaction).



Droplets are formed as gases cool and condense. Atmospheric droplets condense from combustion gases, especially industrial and transportation emissions like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and also water. Atmospheric water dominates the droplet formation process.

Droplet Formation


Cooling gases quickly condense into droplets in what is called the ‘accumulation mode’ of droplets. Accumulating droplets are sometimes called ‘cloud scavenging’ for the way they grow by collecting gases and mixing with other droplets.

Droplets gain and lose water as the humidity changes. Condensing water often brings multiple droplets together, and this ‘wetting’ and ‘drying’ of droplets can aid in droplet accumulation.



Droplets’ Beginnings: Ultrafine nulceotoids

While dust can only be ground to about 0.5 μm minimum, and most dust particles are much bigger, smaller solid particles can be formed under intense heat and pressure, such as in a fire or engine. These ultrafine, or nanoparticles, are less than 0.1 μm and last only as long as their rapidly dissipating energy can keep them from bonding. With only a dozen to a few hundred molecules making up each ultrafine particle, the properties and behavior of ultrafines are poorly understood. Ultrafine material, especially elemental carbon nanoparticles from transportation and diesel, are a growing field of study.


As ultrafine particles lose energy, cooling gases condense around them, ‘nucleating’ (forming the center, or nucleus, of) a new droplet. Often the gases condensing onto ultrafines are in the same emissions stream from combustion, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The droplets formed around ultrafines may also nucleate other droplets, especially ‘wet’ droplets of water.

Respirable Particles

The body removes objects from the lungs in two ways, by coughing (“expectorating”), or by absorption and removal by the blood stream. In order to enter the bloodstream, particles must pass the last branching passageways in the lungs: the terminal bronchioles. Particles above the terminal bronchioles are the “thoracic fraction” (thoracic means in the chest), and below the terminal bronchioles particles are considered respired particles. Respired particles may, however, still be removed by coughing.


The most particles in the respiratory system average around 2.5 μm, while most in the thoracic fraction are are around 10 μm. The fate of short-lived ultrafine particles in the lungs is still being studied.



Particulate Matter is one of six ‘criteria pollutants’ determining National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). All of the EPA’s technology-based particle regulations share features in common with the PM10 standard, and a deep look at the PM10 standard is illustrative.


PM10 is the US EPA’s first attempt to capture a standardized indicator of respirable particles. “PM10” stands for Particulate Matter less than or equal to 10 μm in diameter. Established in 1987, PM10 is now a global benchmark. PM10 is a technology-based standard-- all PM10 tools and measurements are related back to the original reference filter-based PM Monitors instrument. Similar measurement tools with a tight correlation with this original Federal Reference Method (FRM) now share the FRM designation. Tools that use different processes and have a somewhat less tight correlation are designated Federal Equivalent Methods (FEMs).

You can read about the FRM PM10 monitor in the Code of Federal Regulations:


The goal of the FRM is to generate a 24 hour average of the concentration of respirable particles in the air. It does this by pumping a precise volume of air inside, selecting the particles smaller than 10 μm, and depositing them on a filter, and measuring their accumulated mass. Note that the FRM concentration is determine in "mass per volume" and not "number of particles per volume," and thus requires a gravimetric rather than a particle-counting technique. The particles are selected for size with a device called an impactor (o cyclone). The function of an FRM impactor is written into the regulation and legally defines what is and isn’t PM10.


An impactor sorts particles by momentum. As air is drawn into the instrument, an impactor plate interrupts the air’s linear flow. Light particles stay in the air stream and pass around the plate. Due to inertia, more massive particles can’t make the turn and hit the plate, thereby crashing out of the sample airstream:


The cutoff size where particles either hit the plate or pass beyond it is not an absolute cutoff; there is a distribution of particle sizes that impact the plate or stay airborne. Different impactor designs are described by the 'sharpness' by which they select particles.


For a PM10 cutoff, 50% of particles that are 10 μm in diameter are passed by the impactor, and 50% crash. The distribution is not even, and the rate at which the impactor cuts off particles above 10 μm is the ‘sharpness’ of the cutoff.

Other categories of regulation include PM2.5 and PM10-2.5, read more in PM Monitoring Regulations.


The PM2.5 FRM monitor is identical to the PM10 monitor, except for a second impactor for PM2.5 after the impactor for PM10.



Note that neither category directly aligns with the size fraction that can travel into the bronchial region of the lungs, particles of approximately 5 μm. Also note that the FRMs collect particulate matter without determining the composition of that particulate matter, which can vary widely based on location and pollution sources. Inhaled silica is known to be especially damaging to human health, so silica-specific exposure is regulated in occupational settings, and in ambient settings in six states.

dust particulates pm particulate-matter