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Truck with Smoke Cropped

AIR POLLUTION IN the Community

Activity 4 (Explain): Particulate Matter and

Human Health

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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this activity, students learn about the major health effects of particulate matter pollution by engaging with a simulation and watching a video. They also determine what things they believed about combustion pollution are true and which are false.

Teacher Tip: If you have already done Module 1 with students, you can choose to skip this activity, or take a moment to refresh students’ memories by replaying the Lung Attack Simulation in step 3.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 30-45 minutes


  • Students will be able to identify the major health risks of particulate matter pollution.

  • Students will be able to compare and contrast the health effects of PM 2.5 and PM 10.



  • Sentence strips

  • Student computers (optional)

  • Computer & projector


  • The Health Effects of Particulate Matter

Standards Connection

DCI: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience

CCC: Cause and Effect



Think back to the trucks we saw at the beginning of our investigation. How do you think the air pollution that comes from those trucks can affect our bodies?

  • Possible answers: it hurts our lungs, it makes us sick, it makes us cough, it makes us sneeze.

Tell students that in a moment, you're going to come back to their ideas to see if they are true or not.


1. Frame the Activity

Ask students if any of them live near a busy road, or if they see a lot of trucks in their community. Have they ever wondered if the exhaust coming out of the trucks is harmful? Remind them of the videos they watched at the beginning of the investigation. What do they think it would be like if they were standing by the road when one of the trucks drove by? Tell students that in this activity, they’ll learn more about how particulate matter affects the human body.

Step 1

2. Fact or Fiction

Take students’ answers from the warmup, and put them on sentence strips (or write them on the board). Tell students that they are going to decide which are facts and which are fiction. Ask them if they have any other ideas about what might be true or not about particulate matter.


If students have not mentioned these, then add them to the list:

  • air pollution can get into our blood

  • air pollution can hurt your brain


If none of the students’ statements are false, considering adding something fictional like: air pollution can cause your skin to change color.

Teacher Tip: Make sure to try out the candle demonstration in advance. Some candles produce more soot than others, so you may want to try out a few different candles to find one that work well.

3. Lung Attack

Hand out the Health Effects of Particulate Matter notes sheet. Tell students that they are going to be watching a simulation that shows some of the health effects of particulate matter on the human body. As they watch, they should answer the questions on their handout.

If students are going to use computers to interact with the simulation on their own, then pass out computers and direct students to the Lung Attack Simulation: 


If students will be watching the simulation together, project it so that all students can see and lead students through the simulations for PM 2.5 and PM 10.


After students have seen both the PM2.5 and PM10 portions of the simulation, take a few minutes to discuss their answers to the questions to clarify any misconceptions. They may have some gaps in the PM2.5 portion of the notes sheet, which they will be able to fill in during the next video.

Technology Note: Lung Attack uses Flash player, which may need permission to run on your computer. Keep an eye out for a pop-up asking for permission for Flash player to run.

Additional media: For an alternative video that is more comprehensive (and comical), show students the US National Library of Medicine’s Video “Something in the Air: Particulate Matter and Your Health” found at:

The video is long (20 minutes) so you may want to consider showing only a portion of it.

Step 4

4. How PM Affects Your Brain (optional)

This video from UNICEF focuses on PM 2.5, so have students add additional notes from this video on that side of their handout. Note: some of the information in this video can be disturbing, so you may choose not to show it to students. If you do show the video, it is highly recommended that you stop it at 1:15 or 1:59. You may consider discussing students’ reaction to the video after they have watched. You can also access the video using this link:

5. Compare and Contrast

Have students answer the compare and contrast questions at the bottom of their notes sheet.

Review their responses to clarify their understanding.

  • Similarities in health effects: both can affect the lungs causing difficulty breathing, coughing, and lung irritation

  • Differences: PM10 mainly affects the lungs and affects breathing. PM2.5 can enter the bloodstream, and cause effects throughout the body, including damage to the brain

6. Return to Fact or Fiction

Go back to students’ statements from the beginning of the activity about the effects of air pollution from the trucks. Have them sort the statements by fact (true) or fiction (false). If there are some statements they don’t yet know the answer to, you can leave them in undecided of give students a chance to look up the answers.

7. Question Check-in

Take a moment to look back at the questions students generated during Activity 1. If there are any questions that you have answered, make sure to recognize this, and have students articulate a clear answer to the question. You may choose to use this in place of their formative assessment if appropriate.

8. Formative Assessment

Have students answer the prompt: “Do you think the government should limit where combustion-powered trucks can go based upon what you learned today? Use evidence from your notes sheet to support your answer.

Teacher Tip: This formative assessment is a teaser for the public health debate that will come at the end of the module

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