Harmful gases and particulates

Particulate matter makes you sick
With every breath we take, we supply our body with oxygen. Without this supply of fresh air, we would die after a few minutes. Polluted air negatively influences diverse body functions, favours a number of sicknesses and can, in the worst case, even cause premature death. In order to protect human health and the environment, the Swiss Federal Council and the European Union fixed limit values for different substances which should not be exceeded in the ordinance of air pollution control (OAPC), respectively the EU directive on air quality. The basis for these limit values can be found in the scientific results of numerous studies regarding the impacts of air pollutants.

Despite considerable progress in the last two decennia, the immissions limit values of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone are still exceeded today.

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter consists of particles with a diameter of less than 10 thousands of millimetres which corresponds approximatively to a tenth of the diameter of a human hair. Air pollutants, also called PM10 transfer into the atmosphere as primary particles – for example through the incomplete burning of combustibles and fuels, during industrial processes and through the abrasion from tyres, road surfaces and train tracks. Additionally, there are also secondary particles which only develop in the air out of gaseous substances like ammoniac, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and organic compounds. Particulate matter is composed out of numerous chemical bonds. The most dangerous components to health are the small, carcinogenic soot particles with a diameter of only 100 millionth of millimetres. Soot comprehends all primary carbonic particles of an incomplete burning process.

The highly fissured structure of the dust particles enables a deposit of toxic substances, for example of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In strongly exposed areas, humans inhale around 50 million particles with each breath – in less exposed areas it is around 10 times less. The smaller the particles, the deeper they can penetrate into the thinnest ramifications of the lungs. From there they arrive in the lymphatic system and the bloodstream.

Source: Federal Office for the Environment, Bern, 2005

Standard values

The size of the particles is directly connected to their danger for health. Environmental organisations worry about particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres or less because they are small enough to reach the lungs through the nose and throat. Once inhaled, these particles can harm the heart and the lungs.

The particles are divided into four categories:

PM 10

coarse-grained particles, as they can be found next to streets and dusty industrial areas. Their diameter is less than 10 micrometres and this category also comprehends fine, very fine and ultrafine particles.

PM 2,5

fine particles as they can be found in smoke or mist. Their diameter is smaller/equals 2,5 micrometres and they appear because of forest fires or through the reaction of gases from the industry or cars in the air. But diesel engines are their main source. Very fine and ultrafine particles belong to this category.

PM 1

very fine particles (the most dangerous ones for health) have a diameter of smaller/equal to 1 micrometre. They are practically washed out of the air by rain. They belong to the ultrafine particles.

PM 0,1

ultrafine particles with a diameter of less than 0,1 micrometre and also called „nano particles“. They remain in the air for a very short time, only for minutes or hours.

PM 2.5 and PM 1 can penetrate into the deepest regions (alveoli) of the lungs, where the gas exchange between air and blood is taking place. Those are the most dangerous particles because the alveolar area of the lungs has no possibility to eliminate these particles. If the particles are soluble in water, they reach our blood circulation within a few minutes. If they are not soluble in water, then they remain in the alveolar area for a long time. Soluble elements can be made of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or of rest of benzenes, so-called carcinogens.

Source: www.nano-sense.com

The impact on health of particulate matter indoors

With Council Directive 1999/30/EC of 22 April 1999 relating to limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead in ambient air, the European Union wanted to fix progressive limit values for amongst others particulate matter.

Indoor spaces

Indoor spaces can differ majorly depending on the architectural conditions, their concrete use, the intensity of potential indoor sources, the proximity to exterior air sources and particle movements from the outside to the inside and vice versa as well as the meteorological conditions. Important indoor sources are: burning processes related to open fires (chimneys, gas-fired boilers, gas stoves), candles and especially indoor smoking, cooking and the usage of electronic devices, like laser printers, handicraft works, the swirling of sedimented particles as well as the entry of adhesive dust particles on shoes and clothes. Against this background a complex pollution pattern can be depicted. When making comparisons, attention needs to be paid to the fact that different sampling strategies and measuring methods of particles can significantly influence the results of the measurements.


It has been proven that smoking is the most influential factor on the concentration of particulate matter indoors and to a lesser extent also vacuum cleaning, cooking and burning incense sticks.

Indoor pollutants

Volatile organic compounds (VOC)
The sum of all VOC is defined as TVOC (total VOC). A subgroup is formed by microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC).

This group gathers chemically very different, medium volatile organic substances whose boiling range is situated between 50° and 100°C as lower limit and 240° to 260°C as upper limit.

NAlcohols like for example ethanol or propanol are used in many household products like cosmetics, detergent and disinfectants. They are not often used as solvents for paint (exception: biological paint). Other alcohols like butanol are used as solvents. The prevalence of household products and the high amounts of beverage alcohol (ethanol) lead to a clear evidence of alcohols in almost every measured household.

Some construction materials, such as bad linoleum floors can outgas high amounts of aldehydes. But they are only rarely measured in analyses focused on them. Aldehydes like formaldehydes can be found in disinfectants. Glues based on urea formaldehyde resins contain large amounts of aldehydes – especially formaldehydes. Since the irritant effect of formaldehydes on mucous membranes is widely known, they are often not used anymore, respectively the amount of aldehydes is reduced.

The substance group of terpenes is used in painting, especially biological painting. The advantage being that many terpenes possess a pleasant smell since pine oil (a- and b-pinene) and citrus fruit (limes) contain it. Terpene compounds are often liberated in large amounts indoors through fragrances, respectively essential oils of aroma lamps. Often solvents based on terpenes are declared particularly “mild and acceptable” and it is stressed that they contain only natural components.

But terpenes are criticized more and more since many of these compounds could contain allergenic substances or it has been proven that they do.

Ketones as for example acetone or diethyl ketones are sold in glues (all-purpose adhesives) and as universal solvents. Nail polish remover generally contains large amounts of acetone.
Formaldehyde belongs to the chemical substance class of aldehydes. At room temperature, it is a colourless, pungent-smelling gas. A 30 to 37 percent solution of formaldehyde in water is defined as formalin.

Formaldehyde is an important raw material for the synthetic resin industry. It is used for the production of binders for wood materials. These glues are sold as urea formaldehyde resins, melamine and phenol formaldehyde resins. Formaldehyde is also used for the production of insulation foams and adhesives, serves as textile auxiliary agent and is a component for some medicine and cosmetic products. Formaldehyde is not allowed in hair straightening products. Tobacco smoke is a major source of formaldehyde.

In households where no one smokes, furniture made of chipboards with a high pollutant evaporation (emission class less than E1) represents the most common source for elevated concentrations of formaldehyde in ambient air. Especially chipboards, produced with urea formaldehyde resins outgas formaldehyde for years. Melamine and phenol formaldehyde resins it is also the case but to a much lesser extent. High humidity and high temperatures favour the liberation of gases.

Carpets and insulation foams can also be sources of formaldehyde, as well as disinfectants containing formaldehyde. They all pollute indoor air. In smallest quantities, formaldehyde is a natural component of the human body. It contributes to the metabolic processes within our cells.

Health risks of formaldehyde
Because of its pungent smell, formaldehyde is clearly perceptible indoors starting with a concentration of approximatively 0,1 milligrams per cubic meter. One milligram already causes irritations of the respiratory tract as well as the mucosa of the eyes, nose and throat. In higher concentrations headaches, respiratory problems, nausea and lacrimation may appear.

The sensitivity regarding formaldehyde depends on each person. The symptoms disappear as soon as one is not exposed to the formaldehyde anymore. Formaldehyde is a contact allergen, i.e. with repeated contact allergic reactions can appear.

Outdoor air – influencing factor

The quality of indoor air is influenced and determined by the quality of incoming outdoor air, through „pollutant sources“ and „pollution sinks” (materials that absorb pollutants). The frequency of air exchange is important. Healthy and pure outdoor air is therefore a precondition for good indoor air. Depending on the location of the apartment and the environment, outdoor air can be negatively impacted by vehicle exhaust or emissions from surrounding industrial areas such as gas stations, chemical purification, agriculture etc.

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