When the Dust Settles: How Does the Saharan Dust Storm Affect Lung Health?
So far, 2020 has been a wild year and we are only halfway through. From the COVID-19 pandemic to murder hornets to protests that awakened the nation, this momentous year has left many of us wondering, “What’s next?”
It turns out, it may be dust storms. A Saharan dust storm of historic proportions recently crossed the Atlantic Ocean and is impacting the United States. According to The Atlantic, this storm contained “182 million tons of dust from the western Sahara, enough to fill 689,290 semi-trucks.” Though dust storms are common in the Sahara, the dust usually only travels as far as the oceans or the rainforests of South America, where it causes no problems for humans—in fact, the dust even has some positive effects for marine life.
This year, however, the dust plume is much larger than normal with experts predicting this will be the most dust they have seen in half a century. "This is the most significant event in the past 50 years. Conditions are dangerous in many Caribbean islands," Pablo Méndez Lázaro, from the University of Puerto Rico's School of Public Health, told the Associated Press.
The dust plume is currently in the process of cloaking the southeastern United States, but CNN meteorologist Tyler Mauldin believes the storm could reach as far north as southern Illinois and Ohio.
Dr. Meredith McCormack, Associate Professor of Medicine & Medical Director of Pulmonary Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association explained what this means for our lungs and what we can do to combat the effects of this deadly dust cloud.
How to Protect Ourselves
“Increases of dust of any kind can provoke symptoms; things such as coughing, shortness of breath, or sometimes sneezing as the nose tries to clear particles out of the air,” Dr. McCormack explained. It is also important that people with underlying lung conditions, such as COPD and asthma, are aware of their increased risk of complications if exposed. “Experiencing increases in dust, like we are seeing, can have respiratory health consequences and can contribute to an exacerbation of symptoms,” she said.
Though people with chronic lung disease are more at risk for developing complications from the Saharan dust storm, everyone has the potential to experience symptoms related to dust exposure. If you live in an area that is experiencing higher levels of dust than normal, Dr. McCormack says to stay on alert for symptoms like wheezing and coughing. “Sometimes people experience watery eyes or nose and eye irritation,” she added. “That might be another sign that you’re having increased exposure.”
She also urges those living in high dust areas to continue wearing a face covering while outdoors and thinking about how protect your indoor air environment. “To really protect your lungs, think about what you can do to try to make sure that air from outside is filtered to the greatest extent possible.” Dr. McCormack suggests keeping windows closed during high dust days and regularly changing out air filters if you live in a home with central air. “If you're in a high dust area or have seen higher concentrations locally, something like a HEPA filter or an additional air filtration in your indoor space might be something to consider,” she added.
Complications from COVID-19
In response to the global pandemic, Dr. McCormack says that people experiencing symptoms from COVID-19 are at an increased risk for experiencing exasperations from the dust storm. “Viral exposure to COVID-19 and then also breathing air pollution can cause harm. When you have these two exposures together, a viral infection and spike or surge in air pollution exposure, those can be harmful.” However, Dr. McCormack also acknowledges that “one of the things about COVID-19 is that it's increased our awareness of how to protect our lungs, and also how to reduce harm from virus and from air pollution.” Things such as wearing face coverings, paying more attention to how our lungs feel and social distancing are generally helpful to maintaining lung health and can also help reduce exposure to dust. “The extent to which we can all try to reduce harm and protect our lungs will help to reduce the risk of experiencing an adverse impact of COVID-19 as well as reducing self-exposure to dust. It is a good strategy,” she says.
Raising Awareness Is Key
Dr. McCormack believes that promoting awareness of local air quality and encouraging people to use their resources to learn about their air quality is key to staying healthy. “Being aware of your local air quality is really important,” Dr. McCormack explained. “You can use the news, the radio or the internet as a resource to understand what the air is like outside.” In addition, she stressed once again the importance of staying inside on days when air quality is particularly poor.
The Bigger Problem Behind the Dust
Besides worrying about our health, Dr. McCormick believes that this unprecedented amount of dust is likely caused by climate change and unique weather patterns. “Every year millions of tons of dust are aerosolized off the coast of sub Saharan Africa,” she said. “We've seen a lot of increases over time due to climate change. Wind patterns particularly affect how the dust is carried over and where it reaches. Places like the Caribbean often have high concentrations of desert dust and we're seeing higher concentrations than typical in the United States,” she added. “But this dust has been present. It's not a new exposure, but there is a surge in the amount of dust recently, which has increased public awareness.”
“So really, I think it's a good reminder that climate change is happening,” she continued. “The effects that are really transcontinental. Climate change affecting the areas in Africa is now affecting everyone, including us in the United States.”
As the effects of climate change continue to impact our lung health, it is important to stay informed about the air quality in our communities. To learn more about the quality of air in your city, check out the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report.
Blog last updated: July 13, 2020