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What Are Airborne Particles?

By M. Haskins
Updated May 17, 2024
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Airborne particles are very fine particles made up of either solid or liquid matter that can stay suspended in the air and spread with the wind. Common examples of such particles are: fog, which is made up of tiny water droplets; dust, which is made up of very fine particles of solid matter; and smoke, which is made up of both solid matter and liquid. Airborne particle size varies greatly, and they are often measured in microns, meaning it is so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. Sources of airborne particles can be natural, such as the dust and smoke created by volcanic eruptions and forest fires, or man-made, such as the soot from the burning of coal in a power plant or the residual oil particles in vehicle exhaust fumes. Scientific studies show that these particle pollution can cause health problems in humans and affect the Earth's climate.

A common measurement used for an airborne particle is micron, also called a micrometer. One micron is one-millionth of a meter (39.37 inches). Airborne dust particles are often at least 1 micron in diameter. The particles that make up fumes can be as small as 0.1 micrometers, while the water droplets in mist can vary from 2-50 micrometers in size. Very small airborne particles can stay suspended in the air for years and spread over great distances, while large particles usually settle on the ground after a short time.

Naturally formed airborne particles make up about 90% of the particles suspended in Earth's atmosphere, and this includes ocean salt from sea spray and dust made up of mineral particles from the Earth's crust. Man-made particles can come from traffic, factory emissions, the burning of fossil fuel like oil, and many other sources. These man-made particles vary in composition. Some examples are carbon particles in diesel exhaust, metallic particles from smelters, and sulfur dioxide released from the burning of coal. At high concentrations, airborne sulfur dioxide particles can contribute to cooling the Earth's climate.

Airborne particle counters can be used to measure the particle content of indoor and outdoor air. Such instruments commonly detect particles with a diameter of 0.2-25 microns. Scientists believe that airborne particles with a diameter less than 2.5 microns can be especially harmful to humans. The small size of the particles means they can penetrate deep into lung tissue or even the blood stream, causing serious lung and heart disease.

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Discussion Comments

By shell4life — On Jan 26, 2012

@kylee07drg – This sounds like what happened to me when I was mowing my yard. I hit a couple of big anthills, and the dirt went flying into the air and into my nose and lungs.

In addition to this, it was allergy season, so pollen covered everything. As I ran over the grass and weeds, I cut everything up into even finer particles, which flew right up into my face.

After I got off the mower, I could barely breathe. I had a terrible cough, and my airways felt constricted.

Seven hours and three antihistamines later, I could finally breathe well enough to go to sleep. Like you, I will have to wear a mask next time I do this.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 26, 2012

Airborne particles of dust filled my lungs and made me ill after I cleaned out a dusty old shed. I had just moved to a new house, and the attached shed had layers of dust on the shelves and on the concrete floor.

As I began to sweep and wipe, I stirred up the particles, and they quickly filled the air. I couldn't help but breathe them in, and I immediately began coughing.

I coughed for the rest of the day, and the next day, I was sick. I seemed to develop a respiratory infection overnight because of the particles in my airways, and I could not stop coughing and wheezing.

I had to go to my doctor for an expectorant and some antibiotics. She told me to wear a mask next time I cleaned out that shed.

By orangey03 — On Jan 25, 2012

@seag47 – Smoke particles are nearly unbearable when the fire is right next door. My neighbor has lots of trees in his yard, and each fall, he burns large piles of them. I get to suffer the effects of his air pollution, because the smell is so strong that it gets inside my house.

If I go outside, then the particles coat my hair and clothing. When this happens, I will smell like smoke for the rest of the day.

I used to like the smell of a small pile of leaves burning, because it reminded me of the bonfires of my childhood. However, when someone burns an entire yard of leaves, he creates far too many airborne particles for me to enjoy the smell.

By seag47 — On Jan 25, 2012

I know that smoke from a fire over a mile away can travel to my house. Someone a good distance down the street was burning an old shed, and the air particles traveled quite a long way.

The air pollution permeated the whole neighborhood. The instant I stepped outside, I smelled smoke, and I ran into the back yard to make sure nothing was burning on my property.

It amazes me that these particles can affect me so strongly from so far away. Even after the fire went out, the particles lingered for hours, as did the smell.

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