Ultrafine particles (UFPs) are particles that are less than 100 nanometers or one billionth of a meter in length. Air quality agencies do not monitor pollution that small, and there are no air quality standards or regulations that include them. Nevertheless, an increasing number of scientific studies suggest that these ultrafine particles may be the most dangerous of all the particulate matter (PM) that we breathe. Studies have linked UFPs to asthma, cancer, heart attacks, respiratory illness and strokes.
New Research Illuminates Risks
Once current science accepted that ultrafine particles negatively affect human health, new research began to uncover the many ways and the extent to which that occurs. In the last year alone, one group of scientists linked UFPs to increased platelets in people with diabetes, and another group identified a mechanism by which ultrafine carbon particles were disrupting the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory systems in human bodies.
By definition, an ultrafine particle is smaller than 100 nm, or 0.1 microns, in diameter. To put this size into perspective, consider that 1,000 UFPs can fit across the width of a human hair. Air quality specialists have also begun to appreciate the truth that with smaller particles comes greater risk. This is true because the surface area of the smaller particle is greater, and thus it can expose a greater proportion of atoms or molecules than a larger particle can.
Ultrafine Particles Indoors
Ultrafine particles are most commonly associated with outdoor sources, such as traffic and industry. There are, however, indoor sources, and outdoor air pollution enters a structure and becomes even more dangerous due the higher concentration levels. In fact, indoor air pollution levels will always be higher than outdoor levels unless the structure has proper air filtration and ventilation.
Recent studies in Australia and Germany showed the concentrations of UFPs were higher inside classrooms than they were on the busy roads that provide access to those schools. That same research also found significant indoor sources of UFPs, such as glues and paints. In home environments, sources include cigarette smoke, cooking ranges and toaster ovens.
It is important to keep in mind that children can be at particular risk to these UFPs. Children have much higher metabolic rates and thus consume much more oxygen than adults do. In other words, children breathe more pollution in and are affected by it more severely.
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