Time for Plain Talk about Particulate Matter

Feb 15, 2014 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Time for Plain Talk about Particulate Matter

image by: Pixabay

Might the result of one particle—or a dozen, or a hundred—be negligible in relation to human health? Sure. But put enough particles out there, and things change

As writer Mike Bell writes, "The term 'third-hand smoke sounds preposterous." But as his excellent (and funny!) Vice article points out, a University of California, Riverside study has found that third-hand smoke is not only real, it can cause cancer and other damage just like its big brothers first- and second-hand smoke.

No-one who has even a slight understanding of particulate matter should be a bit surprised. Cigarette smoke, after all, is basically just a bunch of unhealthy particles in such a high concentration that they are apparent to the unaided human eye. When a smoker exhales that drag of his fag, untold numbers of nicotine and other particulates stream into the air.

Dissipation of the smoke makes it seem like they disappear, but they don't. Every single one of those particles goes somewhere. Sometimes that "where" is into clothing or other surfaces. What did you think it was causing smokers' homes to smell like, well, smoke?

Smelling something is nothing more than having enough molecules bond to your olfactory receptors so that you can consciously perceive their presence. And if they're in your nose, they're also getting into you lungs, blood, and other bodily tissues. Worse yet, as the UC Riverside study points out, those particles become more toxic as they sit around over time, just waiting for you to take them in.

 "[Third-hand smoke, or] THS[,] is a potential health threat to children, spouses of smokers and workers in environments where smoking is or has been allowed," writes the UC Riverside research team in the abstract for the PLOS One article in which their study is published. The team goes on to document how damage observed in multiple organ systems of the mice they studied is "similar to th[at] found in children exposed to [second-hand smoke] (and consequently to THS)," how this is "a precursor to cirrhosis and cancer and a potential contributor to cardiovascular disease," to lung damage, to retarded healing of wounded skin that shares "many characteristics of the poor healing of surgical incisions observed in human smokers," and even "behavioral tests show[ing] that THS-exposed mice become hyperactive, [which correlates] with emerging associated behavioral problems in children exposed to SHS/THS, suggest[ing] that, with prolonged exposure, they may be at significant risk for developing more severe neurological disorders."

While some of the specifics documented in this study are new, the general idea is both old and obvious: put toxic elements into the air, and bad things happen to mice, humans, and other living things, often even when the levels of air pollution are relatively low. (See, for example, this 2009 study by the American Heart Association.

But what is obvious is not always evident to everybody. That's why there is such a raging debate over global warming. It's painfully obvious that putting ever-larger amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can raise Earth's surface temperature. But because we get hung up on currently unanswerable details like whether humans already have raised Earth's temperature—and if so, by exactly how much—the door is left open for climate-science -deniers to say, "Well, you can't prove that."

It's time to get simple, to talk plainly. We live in a world of cause and effect. Put a particle into the air, and it causes something to happen. The result is never nothing. Might the result of one particle—or a dozen, or a hundred—be negligible in relation to human health? Sure. But put enough particles out there, and things change.

Earth's atmosphere is not infinite. Not even close. It's composed of a finite volume of gases. About 78% is nitrogen. Oxygen is almost 21%. Argon is a little less than 1%. Do the math, and you quickly see there's relatively little else. But what little else there is can make a huge difference. A life-changing difference. Planet-wide.

Cumulatively, greenhouse gas—whose constituents include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone—help keep the heat of the sunlight reflected off the Earth's surface within our atmosphere. This is not a point of contention.

What is also not a point of contention is that, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activity has pumped ever more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels, which does not occur naturally in the world, releases carbon dioxide. And while cattle, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, are a naturally-occurring part of the world, industrial-scale cattle-breeding by humans has unnaturally raised the level of methane being released into the atmosphere, to the point that in 2006 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that livestock are responsible for 18% of all greenhouse-gas emissions.

Let's say X amount of carbon dioxide plus Y amount methane in the atmosphere equals a mean Earth temperature of Z. So what happens to Z when both X and Y are increased? The principle here is almost too obvious for words. Adding more of what causes warmth causes more warmth, just like adding more of what causes cancer causes more cancer. So when we talk about the effects of pumping particulate matter into the air around us, let's stop with the disingenuousness.

We know that particulate matter can—and does—damage us. So whatever there is that can be debated, there's no reason to debate the question of whether we're better off minimizing particulate matter wherever and whenever we can. We are, so we should. Enough talk.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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