Exposure to particulate matter can have serious consequences, including respiratory diseases and the aggravation of cardiovascular diseases. In the Netherlands, 9,000 people die prematurely yearly due to particulate matter exposure. Therefore, a different approach is needed if we want to win the battle against particulate matter and permanently improve air quality in the Netherlands. Based on a new view, which assumes that one particulate has more impact on health than another, Dutch TNO has developed a 5-step plan.
In the Clean Air Agreement, the national government, provinces, and many municipalities strive for health gains of at least 50% by 2030 compared to 2016. The particulate matter standard and the measurements we use in the Netherlands and Europe only focus on particulate matter mass: all particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in a cubic meter of air.
Successful policies have reduced the concentration of particulate matter, but in recent years the reduction has stagnated, and we are achieving fewer and fewer health gains. Moreover, the composition of the particulate matter mixture is gradually changing. Therefore, policies aimed at health gains require a different, even more, effective approach.
The variables that matter for further health gains are not included. If the particulate matter standard is met, this does not eliminate the health risks. Meeting the standard does not necessarily mean being safe.
What if Dutch road traffic becomes completely emission-free by 2030? What could that mean for air quality in cities? Of course, the most significant gain would be the disappearance of NO2 emissions. But the gains would be minimal in terms of reducing particulate matter (PM10-PM2.5).
Not all particulates have the same health impact. We should also look at:
- Ultrafine particulate matter: the very small light particles that penetrate deeper into the lungs.
- Their shape, chemical reactivity, particulate matter composition, and harmfulness are not always the same.
- The source of the particulates: For example, inhaling sea salt particles while walking on the beach has a different effect than cycling behind a diesel car.
In the fight against health damage caused by particulate matter, it makes little sense to measure only particulate matter mass, as is currently the case. TNO argues for a new particulate matter approach that better addresses the health risks: a source-specific approach to particulate matter. We will achieve the most significant health gains if we base our policies on the particulates’ size, shape, and chemical reactivity. It is essential to know where these particulates are; there is no single approach that works everywhere.