Particulate matter

Particulate matter is unhealthy

Particulate matter is collective name for small particles in the air. Some of the particulate matter comes from natural sources such as windblown dust and sea salt. Almost 75- 80% of the amount of particulate matter in the air is caused by human activity. For example, particulate matter is produced by, among other things, industrial combustion processes and traffic, the transhipment of bulk goods, livestock farming, wood-burning stoves and cigarette smoke.

Particles that are smaller than 10 micrometres (1 micrometre is one thousand times smaller than 1 millimetre) are called PM10. The particles can differ in scale and size, as well as in chemical composition. Particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres are referred to as PM2.5. Recently there has been an increasing focus on the even smaller particles because these appear to be more harmful than PM10 and PM2.5 particles. Soot is a key element of particulate matter. This Atlas contains a separate page on soot.

Particular matter is a health hazard. In the Netherlands people tend to die several days or months earlier due to short-term exposure to particulate matter. The people in question are primarily elderly people and people with cardiovascular or respiratory diseases. There is no safe level because particulate matter is also harmful in low concentrations. However, the scale of the effects is then much less than in the case of higher concentrations. During the past ten years the concentrations of average particulate matter have declined: in the period between 2009 and 2014 there was a decrease of almost 20 percent.

Current situation

In order to gain an insight into the degree of air pollution, particulate matter is measured and calculated. The monitoring report NSL 2015 for the year 2014 generated the following results. In the majority of the Netherlands the calculated concentrations of particulate matter were below the European standards, but in some areas they were exceeded. The amount of particulate matter was still excessive locally in areas of intensive livestock farming and industry. In 2014 the standards for particulate matter were exceeded in 20 of the 393 Dutch municipalities. The results for the year 2015 are expected at the end of 2016.


During the past ten years there has been a gradual decrease in the amount of particulate matter. However, in urban areas the concentrations of particulate matter are no longer or only scarcely decreasing in recent years. The decline in particulate matter due to the introduction of cleaner engines has largely been cancelled out by the number of kilometres driven and the greater engine capacity of the vehicles.

The Atlas of the Living Environment contains several maps showing calculated particulate matter concentrations. Annual average maps are available for PM10 for the years 2013 and 2014 and 2015. Maps for PM2.5 can also be studied for the years 2013 and 2014 and 2015. The expectation is that the annual averages for 2016 for both elements will become available at the beginning of 2018. The inserts to the maps contain an explanation as to how the calculations were made.

Hourly maps are also available with calculated values for PM10. The same concentrations of PM10 can also be followed on the website of the RIVM's Air Quality Monitoring Network [Luchtmeetnet]. There you can also find the particulate matter forecasts for tomorrow and the day after.

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Health effects of particulate matter

Short-term (for one or more days) high exposure to particulate air pollution has an effect on the health of people who are already sensitive to such pollution. They may suffer from coughs and tightness of chest and worsening of respiratory complaints and temporary deterioration in pulmonary function. Children, elderly people and people with existing respiratory disorders or cardiovascular diseases are the most sensitive groups. The symptoms usually disappear again as soon as the concentration of particulate matter in the air drops. A relation is also believed to exist with the increased daily mortality from cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases.

The fact that the levels of particulate matter have been decreasing since the start of the 1990s has also caused a decrease in early mortality due to short-term peak exposure since that time. It is estimated that more than 3,000 people a year died prematurely at the beginning of the 1990s as a consequence of a short-term peak exposure to particulate matter, compared to approximately 1,800 in 2009. The people in question were primarily elderly people and people with cardiovascular or respiratory diseases. (Source Environmental Data Compendium).

Long-term exposure to particulate matter can have effects on people's health, such as reduced pulmonary function and exacerbation of respiratory complaints. People can also die prematurely due primarily to respiratory complaints and cardiovascular diseases. The lives of Dutch people who have experienced long-term exposure to particulate matter will be reduced by approximately 9 months compared to a particulate matter-free environment. This is an average. Some people will be affected less and others more. Health effects, such as reduced pulmonary function, will probably be reversed if people move to an area with cleaner air.

Health effects of ultrafine particles

The focus is shifting more and more to even smaller particles, which are part of PM10. Ultrafine particles consist of particles which are smaller than 0.1 micrometres (PM0.1). The assumption is that these smaller particles are more harmful than PM10 and PM2.5 because they can penetrate deeper into the lungs. A great deal of attention has also been focused on the soot in particles because the effects of soot are estimated to be ten times more detrimental than those of PM10.

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Air Quality Directive

An amended European directive for air quality came into effect in 2008. Some countries were allowed, subject to certain conditions, to comply with the threshold values for particulate matter at a later date, but no later than in 2011. The Netherlands was given a deferment for particulate matter until mid 2011 on the basis of the National Air Quality Cooperation Programme [Nationaal Samenwerkingsprogramma Luchtkwaliteit] (NSL), in which remediation measures were described. The new European directive contains air quality standards for PM10 and PM2.5.

When assessing whether the threshold values for PM10 are fulfilled, the contribution from natural sources, such as sea salt in the Netherlands, may be deducted.


PM10 The annual average threshold value is 40 micrograms/m3. The daily average threshold value of 50 micrograms/m3 must not be exceeded on more than 35 days per year. When assessing and verifying the concentrations of PM10, the threshold value for the peak concentrations is normative. It follows from the correlation between the annual average concentration and peak concentrations of PM10 that the threshold value for the peak concentrations is exceeded in the event of an annual average concentration of PM10 which is higher than 31.7 μg/m3.

PM2.5 The new air quality directive contains threshold and target values for PM2.5. Since 2015 the threshold value for the annual average PM2.5 concentration has been 25 µg/m3. This threshold value is generally applicable. An 'indicative threshold value' for the annual average PM2.5 concentration of 20 µg/m3 will come into effect in 2020.

Plans of action

If a threshold value is exceeded the municipality, provincial government or the central government must take measures to reduce the concentrations and draw up an action plan.

The central government, the provincial governments and municipalities are taking all kinds of measures to reduce the health risks of air pollution. In addition to particulate matter there are also standards for other substances that contaminate the air.

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Things you can do yourself to combat air pollution

You can also do things yourself to limit air pollution or its effects. You can, for example, opt for environmental friendly transport or for a cycling route which takes you past less contaminated areas. You can also reduce the energy consumed at home or you can limit the number of bonfires in the garden. The Environment Centre [Milieu Centraal] provides practical tips on how you can reduce any harmful health effects of air pollution yourself.

Wood-burning stoves and/or bonfires in the garden

A wood burning stove in your house or a bonfire in the garden can be fun and make everyone feel cosy. However, fire can cause all kinds of nuisance and air pollution. The Environment Centre can tell you what is and what is not allowed and what you can do if you experience nuisance due to wood burning stoves or bonfires made by others.

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