Particulate matter approach for greater health gains

Particulate matter

Exposure to particulate matter can have serious consequences, including respiratory diseases and the aggravation of cardiovascular diseases. In the Netherlands, 9,000 people die prematurely every year due to exposure to particulate matter. If we want to win the battle against particulate matter and permanently improve air quality in the Netherlands, a different approach is needed. Based on a new view, which assumes that one particulate has more impact on health than another, we have developed a 5-step plan.

Curious about TNO's new particulate matter approach?

Download TNO's new vision with a concrete 5-step plan.

Current particulate matter approach and the clean air agreement

In the Clean Air Agreement, the national government, provinces, and a large number of municipalities strive for health gains of at least 50% by 2030 compared to 2016. The particulate matter standard and the measurements we use in the Netherlands and Europe only focus on particulate matter mass: all particulate matter smaller than 10 micron in a cubic metre of air.

Standard achieved, problem unsolved

Successful policies have reduced the concentration of particulate matter, but in recent years the reduction has stagnated, and we are achieving fewer and fewer health gains. Moreover, the composition of the particulate matter mixture is gradually changing. Policies aimed at health gains require a different, even more effective, approach.

How different particles penetrate the airways

After inhalation, the size of the particles determines how deeply they penetrate into the lungs, with ultrafine particles penetrating deepest and being able to be absorbed into the blood.

The current European regulation of particulate matter is based on the mass of all particulate matter present in a cubic metre of air. The health impact is related to the reactivity of the particles in the particulate matter, and this in turn is determined by other properties such as the chemical composition, and size of the particles. After inhalation, the size of the particles determines how deeply they penetrate into the lungs, with ultrafine particles penetrating deepest and being able to be absorbed into the blood.

The variables that really matter for further health gains are not included at the moment. If the particulate matter standard is met, this does not eliminate the health risks. Meeting the standard does not necessarily mean being safe.

Better differentiation leads to more heath gains

Not all particulates have the same health impact. We should also look at:

  1. Ultrafine particulate matter: the very small light particles that penetrate deeper into the lungs.
  2. Their shape and chemical reactivity; because the composition of particulate matter, and therefore its harmfulness, is not always the same.
  3. The source of the particulates: For example, inhaling sea salt particles while walking on the beach has a different effect than cycling behind a diesel car.

New vision for dealing with particulate matter in the Netherlands

In the fight against health damage caused by particulate matter, it makes little sense to measure only particulate matter mass, as is currently the case. At TNO, we are therefore arguing for a new particulate matter approach that is better addresses the health risks: a source-specific approach to particulate matter.

We will achieve the greatest health gains if we base our policies on the size of the particulates, their shape, and chemical reactivity. It is important to know where these particulates are; there is no single approach that works everywhere. To make the right policy choices, we have developed a 5-step plan.

5-step plan for more health gains

Download the paper ' Standard achieved, problem unsolved'

Particulate matter measurements, modelling and advice

At TNO, we are developing technology that provides insight into the harmfulness, sources, and related composition of particulate matter, helping companies and governments to take well-considered, effective measures to limit emissions.

To this end, we use the following research techniques:

  • We are developing sensor technology to measure at the local level and in real time.
  • We apply mathematical models to make predictions about dispersion and exposure.

In addition, we are developing a real-time, health-relevant indicator of particulate matter in European cities. Currently, we already share the source (activity and origin) of particulate matter on our TOPAS website. Our high resolution dispersion modelling helps stakeholders to choose the healthiest option, such as the healthiest cycling route to a destination.

Particulate matter projects in the Netherlands

Notable particulate matter projects in the Netherlands that we are conducting for improved health include:

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