Indicator: Population exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5)

A graph shows the proportion of people in Germany affected by exceedances of the World Health Organization's 2021 guideline value for particulate matter (PM2.5) from 2010 to 2021. The share was consistently close to 100 % throughout the entire period.Click to enlarge
Population share exposed to PM2.5-concentrations exceeding the WHO annual mean guideline value
Source: German Environment Agency Figure as PDF

Table of Contents


At a glance

  • Between 2010 and 2021, almost the entire population was exposed to particulate matter levels above the WHO guideline value.
  • Comprehensive measures to reduce particulate matter pollution in Germany are absolutely essential for health protection.
  • New EU limit values for particulate matter, which are to apply from 2030 as part of the revision of the EU Air Quality Directive, are to be based on the new WHO guideline values.

Environmental importance

Particulate matter in ambient air is harmful to human health. The particles enter the human body through the respiratory system. Depending on the size of the particles, they can penetrate deeply into the respiratory system. Particularly small particles can enter the blood stream when penetrating the pulmonary tissue. There is clear evidence that particulate matter can trigger various diseases (see 'Particulate matter').

Particulate matter is mainly the result of human activities (e.g. combustion processes), but is also released by mechanical processes (e.g. the abrasion of tires and brakes). Part of the particulate matter is produced in the atmosphere by chemical reactions of other pollutants (such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia) and is therefore referred to as "secondary" particulate matter.

The indicator focuses on the particulate matter exposure levels from rural and urban background areas, but does not consider areas with increased particulate matter concentrations such as roads with high traffic volumes or areas that are close to large industrial plants. It can therefore be assumed that the approach used here underestimates the overall exposure level of the German population.


Assessing the development

During the entire period under consideration, almost the entire population of Germany was exposed to particulate matter concentrations above the current WHO guideline value for the PM2.5 fraction. This is 5 µg/m³ as an annual mean. The number of people affected in Germany increased slightly from 81.7 million to 83.2 million in the comparison between 2010 and 2021. However, this is due to the increase in the total population over this period.

Measures to reduce emissions, particularly in the transport sector, have already led to a significant improvement in particulate matter pollution in Germany in recent years. A further decrease in pollution is expected, above all, through the measures of the National Air Pollution Control Programme (BReg 2019). If these measures are implemented (especially the "coal phase-out" and reduction of ammonia emissions from agriculture), emissions of particulate matter and its precursor gases can be significantly reduced by 2030. To protect health, however, even more far-reaching measures are needed to reduce particulate matter concentrations significantly more and to comply as far as possible with the WHO guideline value.

The EU Air Quality Directive established an annual average limit value of 25 µg/m³ for the fine dust fraction PM2.5 to protect human health (EU Directive 2008/50/EC). This value has not been exceeded in Germany in recent years. However, the directive is currently being revised with the aim of aligning itself more closely with the WHO recommendations in the future. Currently, the proposal for a new EU limit value for PM2.5 from 2030 of 10 µg/m³ as an annual mean is under discussion.



For the indicator, model data of the chemical transport model REM-CALGRID are combined with PM2.5 measurement data of the immission measurement networks of the federal states and the UBA and transferred to the entire area of Germany. Only those measuring stations that are not directly exposed to particulate matter emissions, for example from traffic, are considered for the indicator. For more methodical details, see Kallweit et al. 2013 (in German, abstract in English).

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 particulate matter  air pollution  PM2  5  Population  threshold values  guideline values  indicator