Particulate matter peaks can be deadly in the short term

city traffic pollution

A new global study shows a clear link between fine dust and acute death, even at low concentrations.

Peaks in particulate matter concentrations are immediately translated into higher mortality rates. Studies in specific cities or regions have already proven this. A large-scale study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most authoritative medical journal in the world, makes that claim final: acute exposure to higher particulate matter concentrations increases the risk of death.

The study, published at the end of August, collected data from 652 cities in 24 countries in Europe, North America and Asia. It was conducted by an international network of experts and is the largest ever study of the immediate impact of air pollution. Together they investigated nearly 60 million deaths.

The results are indisputable: whenever the concentration of particulate matter increases by 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg / m³), ​​the number of deaths from heart and lung diseases also increases. The finer the dust, the greater the impact: for PM2.5 (with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or smaller) the mortality rate increases by 0.68 percent, while for PM10 (diameter of 10 micrometres or smaller) 0.44 percent. Finer dust particles penetrate deeper into the lungs and bloodstream.

An increase of less than one percent may seem little, but the risk is high for the entire population. “In cities with hundreds of thousands or millions of inhabitants, large numbers are involved,” says epidemiologist Tim Nawrot (Hasselt University). Based on the figures in the new study, Nawrot made a quick calculation for our country: a decrease of the particulate matter concentrations (PM10) with an average of 10 micrograms could prevent 44 acute deaths per year in Brussels and 281 in Flanders. Then we are only talking about people who die within two days after a fine dust peak. In addition, the much greater impact of air pollution in the long term remains.

More asthma attacks

An increase of 10 micrograms is not exceptional. In 2017 we had an average PM10 concentration in Flanders of between 19 and 28 µg / m³, but on windless days the concentration can rise to 50 or – in extreme cases – 100 micrograms. On those days, lung doctor Guy Brusselle (UZ Gent) immediately notices the difference in his practice. “Every morning I check the air quality on the government website. On days with poor air quality, the lung function of my patients is less good than on days with little pollution. At peak times we see more patients with severe asthma attacks, which sometimes leads to emergency admissions in the hospital. If those people don’t get here fast enough, it can be life threatening. “

For healthy people in their twenties, particulate matter peaks are not that problematic, says Tim Nawrot. “Especially the elderly and people who already suffer from heart and lung diseases are at risk with a pollution peak. Asthma patients also have to pay attention. “

No safe margin

The study clearly shows that there are no safe margins for air pollution. That is perhaps the most important message, according to Brusselle and Nawrot. There is also a correlation between particulate matter and acute death at concentrations within the “safe” air quality standards of the World Health Organization and the European Union. Even more, at lower concentrations, the mortality rate increases faster, after which the curve flattens somewhat (see graph). “That shows that there is much to be gained in our country, even though the situation is not as dramatic as in Asian cities,” Brusselle says. “The less pollution, the better for health. It is like smoking: even one cigarette can be harmful. “


Europe stipulates that Member States may not exceed the threshold of 50 micrograms PM10 for more than 35 days per year. We will achieve that, although the number of days that this threshold is exceeded remains high, certainly in the metropolitan areas around Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. What do we do on days with peak pollution? Stay inside? “I wouldn’t go running on smog days,” says Tim Nawrot. But there is little else you can do as an individual. You can’t stop breathing. Adjusting us is not the solution. A policy that tackles pollution is. We need to keep the concentrations as low as possible and above all not to think: “It is not China here.”

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