Particulate matter

Particulate matter is unhealthy

Particulate matter has a harmful impact on health. In The Netherlands people die several days or even months prematurely because of short-term exposure to particulate matter. In addition, long term exposure to current levels of particulate matter shortens the average life expectancy in the Netherlands with almost 1 year compared to a particle free environment. Prolonged exposure to particulate matter increases the risk for lung cancer, pulmonary disorders, birth defects (e.g. low birth weight) and presumably also brain disorders (including Parkinson). This affects old people and people with cardiovascular or pulmonary complaints. There is no safe level: particulate matter is harmful even in low concentrations, although the impact is less pronounced in low concentrations than in higher concentrations. Over the last ten years the concentrations of particulate matter decreased.

 ‘Particulate matter' is a collective term for particles in the air. Particles that are smaller than 10 micrometer (1 micrometer is a thousand times smaller than 1 millimetre) are called PM10. The particles can vary in size as well as in chemical composition. The finer fraction of particulate matter is called PM2,5. The fraction that contains the smallest particles; smaller than 0,1 micrometer (µm) or 100 nanometer (nm), is called ultrafine particulate matter or PM0,1.   

Attention has lately been focussing  increasingly on the even smaller particles as these are more harmful than PM10 particles. Soot is a major component of particulate matter.

Current situation in the Netherlands

The concentrations of particulate matter have decreased in recent years.

In 2012 the annual average for particulate-matter concentration was not exceeded at the monitoring stations of the National Air-Quality Monitoring Network. The calculated concentrations in most parts of the Netherlands did not exceed the European limit values. The limit values are only locally exceeded, for example along busy roads or highways and near storage facilities and transhipment centres or large agricultural units. These exceedances are slowly decreasing.

Almost 75-80% of the amount of particulate matter in the air is caused by human actions. Of this, 37% is produced in The Netherlands; the rest of the air pollution originates from abroad.

The figure shows the large-scale annual average particulate-matter concentration in 2012. Increases can be seen near the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam and in areas with agricultural units.

Calculations carried out as part of the National Air-Quality Cooperation Programme (NSL) demonstrate that in 2013 the European limit value for the annual average was exceeded 25 times. The limit value for the annual average is also exceeded at cattle farms. The Standards for particulate matter were not met in proximity of 63 intensive cattle farms operating in 19 municipalities located mainly in Gelderland, North Brabant and Limburg.


Over the last 10 years concentrations of particulate matter in The Netherlands have declined by 25-35%. However, in urban areas these concentrations have no longer been decreasing over the last few years. The reduction in particulate matter as a result of the introduction of cleaner engines is to a large extent cancelled out by the increase in the number of kilometres travelled and by more powerful vehicle engines. Read more on this in: Compendium for the Social Environment.

Take a look at the particulate-matter concentrations (pm10) for 2013 of the particulate-matter concentrations (pm2,5) for 2013.

Current concentrations can be monitored on the RIVM's Air-Quality Monitoring Network website. These data are updated every hour.

last modified 13 May, 2015


Health impact of particulate matter

Short-term high exposure to particulate matter can have an impact on the health of people, for example causing coughing and shortness of breath and aggravating respiratory symptoms. Children, people with respiratory diseases or with cardiovascular diseases and the elderly belong to the most sensitive groups. The symptoms usually disappear once the concentration of particulate matter in the air decreases.
As particulate-matter levels have been declining since the beginning of the 1990s, premature deaths caused by short-term peak exposure have been reduced since that date. It is estimated that at the beginning of the nineties over 3,000 people died prematurely every year as a result of short-term peak exposure to particulate matter; in 2009 this figure was approximately 1,800. These were mainly old people and people with cardiovascular or pulmonary problems. (Source: Compendium for the Living Environment)

Long-term exposure to particulate matter can result in health impacts such as impaired long function and aggravation of respiratory symptoms. It can also cause premature deaths among people with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Dutch people have a reduced life expectancy of almost one year as a result of long-term exposure to particulate matter in comparison with a particle free environment. This is an average: some people will be affected less, others more. Health problems, such as a reduced long function, probably improve if people move to another area with cleaner air.

Health impact of ultraparticulate matter

Currently smaller particles that are part of PM10 are being increasingly studied. For example, PM2.5 are particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres. Ultrafine particulate matter consists of particles that are smaller than 0.1 micrometres (PM0.1). Smaller particles are expected to be more harmful than PM10 as they can penetrate more deeply into the lungs. Recently, attention has focussed on soot particulates, because its impact is estimated to be ten times worse than that of PM10.

latst modified 12 May, 2015

Air-Quality Guideline

In 2008 a new European guideline for air quality came into force. The existing limit values for particulate matter remained unchanged. Some countries, under certain conditions, were granted an extension to the deadline for complying with the limit values for particulate matter but had to do so at the latest by 2011. The Netherlands was given an extension of the deadline as regards particulate matter until mid-2011 on the basis of the National Air-Quality Cooperation Programme (NSL), which describes clean-up measures.
The new European guideline introduces air-quality standards for PM2.5. PM2.5 are particles with a cross section of up to 2.5 micrometres. No extension of the deadline for complying with these standards was granted.
In 2013 the European Commission will review the new guideline when more data are available. Then the European Commission will evaluate whether the new PM2.5  standards should become legally binding. The compliance to the limit values for PM10 includes an allowance to discount the contribution made by natural sources such as sea salt in The Netherlands.


The annual average limit value is 40 microgram/m3.
The daily average limit value of 50 microgram/m3 should not be exceeded on more than 35 days in a year.

The derived limit value (relation between daily average limit value and maximum number of exceendance days) is 31,2 microgram/m3. This corresponds to a yearly average concentration of 31,2 microgram/m3 as derived limit value.  

With the testing and evaluation of PM10 levels, the limit value for the daily average concentration is normative.  It follows from the correlation between the annual average concentration and daily average PM10 concentrations that the limit value for daily average concentrations is exceeded at an annual average PM10 concentration higher than 31.7 μg/m3.

The new air-quality guideline contains limit and guide values for PM2.5.  As of 2015 the limit value for the annual average PM2.5 concentration will be 25 µg/m3. This limit value applies everywhere. There is an 'indicative limit value' for the annual average PM2.5 concentration of 20 µg/m3 as of 2020. In 2013 this value will be evaluated, the aim being to assess whether it can be translated into a limit value that will be applicable everywhere as of 2020.

Because of insufficient knowledge on the health effects and because of limitations in measurement methods, there is no limit value for ultrafine particulate matter (yet).

Action plans

If a limit value is exceeded, the municipality, province or state must take measures to reduce the concentrations and draw up an action plan. The state, provinces and municipalities take all kinds of measures to reduce the risks to health of air pollution. In addition to particulate matter there are also standards for other airborne pollutants.

last modified, 12 may, 2015 

What you can do to combat air pollution

You can take measures to limit air pollution or its effects yourself. For example, by opting for environmentally friendly transport or a cycle route through less polluted areas. You can also cut energy consumption at home or restrict the lighting of fires in your garden.Environment Central provides practical tips about how you can reduce the risk of potential harm to your health caused by air pollution.

Garden fires
Lighting a fire in your garden can be fun. However, fires can be a public nuisance and cause air pollution. Environment Central sets out what is and is not permitted and what you can when inconvenienced by a fire lit by somebody else.

Suggestion for actions in your own region
A few general actions are listed here. There may be even more opportunities in the area you have selected to take action yourself.

Take a look at the particulate-matter concentrations (pm10) for 2013 of the particulate-matter concentrations (pm2,5) for 2013.

last modified 12 may, 2015