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Researchers issue warning over weather phenomenon's impact on human health: '[It's] affecting every organ in the body'

Researchers recommend several steps to keep the public safe.

Researchers recommend several steps to keep the public safe.

Photo Credit: iStock

As the world gets warmer, the weather gets less stable, and pollution becomes more widespread, novel health issues are popping up that have never been considered before.

One is the worsening problem of dust storms. While the "Dust Belt" of the world has been dealing with dust storms for millennia, a recent article from environmental researchers Claire Williams Bridgwater and Fatin Samara highlights the surprising threat this natural phenomenon can pose now that human-made pollution has entered the mix.

What's happening?

According to the article, the Global Dust Belt is a region spanning western China, central Asia, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Dry conditions in this region lead to a high occurrence of dust storms. Similar storms also occur in some parts of Australia and the American Southwest.

In these areas, high winds pick up particles from the ground, including dirt, small debris, and fine dust. Even natural materials in these dust storms can damage the eyes and lungs and can be forceful enough to irritate the skin, as the Australian Capital Territory government explains.

Now, Bridgwater and Samara warned that dust storms are carrying other harmful substances as well. "Studies have found pollutants in dust storms that include bioreactive metals such as copper, chromium, nickel, lead, and zinc, as well as pesticides, herbicides, radioactive particulates, and aerosolized sewage," they said in their statement.

Why is this pollution concerning?

According to Bridgwater and Samara, pollutants in dust storms amount to an overlooked public health crisis, likely contributing to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. For example, the Arabian Peninsula — which, in 2011, saw a dust storm 5.5 miles high with dust particle concentrations of 530,000 micrograms per cubic foot — has had the world's highest asthma rates for the last two decades.

They were especially concerned about particulate pollution smaller than one micron in size, called PM1.0 pollution. "Of all particulate matter classes, submicron particles are the most harmful to human health because when once inhaled, they enter the bloodstream, affecting every organ in the body, and even crossing the blood-brain barrier," they explain.

What can be done about pollution in dust storms?

Bridgewater and Samara recommend several steps to keep the public safe during dust storms. First, they want better identification and tracking of the content of each dust storm, including an archive of dust samples. A similar archive from the 19th century already exists, they say, as does the technology to identify the particles in a dust storm.

They also recommend educating the public about safe cleanup techniques after a dust storm, including using water rather than dry vacuuming.

Finally, they want to bring together medical and weather experts to analyze the problem and share knowledge.

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