PM2.5 vs. PM10: The Difference in Particle Air Pollution

PM2.5 and PM10 are the two types of air pollution that the WHO estimates affect “more people than any other pollutant,” but they are different. Here’s how the two contrast.

PM2.5 vs. PM10

The difference between PM10 and PM2.5 is size. But before we get to size, “PM” refers to particulate matter—particles in the air. Those particles are things like organic dust, airborne bacteria, construction dust, and coal particles from power plants.

Read more: If you’re curious what particles we’re breathing in polluted cities, check out this study from researchers in Shanghai who analyzed what those particles are really made of.

WATCH: What is PM2.5 and How Does it Affect Our Health?

5 Things You Should Know about PM2.5 Air Pollution

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Does Size Matter?

The “10” and the “2.5” refer to microns (AKA micrometers). Microns are tiny. Here’s an idea of how small microns are compared to human hair:

pm2.5 pm10 hair sand difference

Next, there’s a hidden (unlabelled) detail in the terms “PM10” and “PM2.5.” That is the “smaller than” piece. Each pollutant type is defined as that size and below. So PM10 is particles 10 microns and below. PM2.5 is 2.5 microns and below. (That means PM10 includes PM2.5.)

Particle Sizes PM10 vs PM2.5 Pollution
PM2.5 Particle Size Bacteria Virus

What PM10 and PM2.5 Are Not

Finally, it’s helpful to think of what PM is not. Particulate pollution does not include gas pollutants like ozone and NO2. It also doesn’t include gas pollutants that often come from inside our home, such as formaldehyde off-gassing from new furniture.

For fellow nerds curious to read more about particulate pollution:

  1. I describe how governments measure PM2.5 (including the trick of how they get rid of any particles in the air larger than 2.5 microns).
  2. I describe what these particles do to our bodies in this answer and why it doesn’t kill like people think it does.
  3. In this answer, I detect 2.5 micron particles in my home in Beijing and test whether a simple DIY air purifier I made can clean it up.

Bottom Line: Differences Between PM2.5 and PM10?

PM stands for ‘particulate matter’. PM10 is particles 10 microns and below. PM2.5 is 2.5 microns and below. PM does not include gas pollutants like ozone and NO2.

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