How harmful is particulate matter and what are the health effects?
Diesel soot is being regarded as carcinogenic by the WHO since 2012. Exposure to too much diesel soot (which is one specific component of particulate matter) increases the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to particulate matter in general does not only lead to an increased risk of lung cancer, but also of cardiovascular diseases.
The last years, epidemiological research has proven that there are also other, less expected health effects: lower birth weight in children of which the mother lives in an area with increased air pollution, air pollution leads to a higher chance of arteriosclerosis, diabetic people are more sensitive to the effects of air pollution etc.
It is however useful to compare these risks to other health risks. A study carried out in the US in 2002 showed that the loss of life span due to air pollution is comparable to the effects of slight to severe overweight (BMI between 25-27 or 30-40 respectively).
Because the present exposure to particulate matter, the life expectancy in Belgium decreased with 7 to 9 months on average. As a comparison, smoking results in an average life span decrease of 10 years. However, while smoking is a personal choice, air pollution is not.