As humanity grapples with the perils of climate change, a silent crisis, largely overlooked, is steadily escalating – the menace of modern desert dust storms. Research Professors in Environmental Science, Claire Williams Bridgwater and Fatin Samara, reveal how these storms, unlike their pre-industrial counterparts, carry a growing load of airborne pollutants due to their proximity to urban dwellings, manufacturing, transportation hubs, and waste treatment facilities. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the Global Dust Belt, an arid to semi-arid region spanning from western China, through Central Asia, to the Middle East and North Africa, with similar occurrences in the U.S. Southwest and central Australia.
The health implications of these modern desert dust storms are alarming. Bridgwater and Samara argue that the storms contribute significantly to rising respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The gravity of the situation is evident in places like the Arabian Peninsula, where the world’s highest asthma rates have been recorded for the past two decades. The researchers’ work underscores the urgent need for improved public health practices to protect populations from the harmful pollutants carried by these dust storms.
The Rising Threat of Polluted Desert Dust Storms
Desert dust storms have been a part of human history for thousands of years, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the modern version of these storms is different — and far more dangerous. With deserts increasingly bordering urban dwellings, manufacturing, and transportation hubs, the dust from these storms is now lifting a growing load of airborne pollutants, transporting them over long distances.
The Global Dust Belt
The Global Dust Belt, a region extending from western China through Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, is particularly affected. Similar storms also occur in the U.S. Southwest and central Australia. Researchers Claire Williams Bridgwater and Fatin Samara argue that modern desert dust storms have been overlooked as a public health crisis. With the rising exposure to these events, there is likely an increase in respiratory and other diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The Scale of the Threat
The Arabian Peninsula, where asthma rates have been the highest globally for the past two decades, serves as a stark example of the threat. One of the most severe desert dust storms in recent decades occurred in spring 2011, covering large parts of the Middle East. The storm reached vertically as high as 5.5 miles above the ground, with wind speeds exceeding 45 mph and dust particle concentrations peaking at 530,000 micrograms per cubic foot. Studies demonstrate that exposure to such storms can lead to increased symptoms like coughing, wheezing, eye irritation, and sleep disturbance, as well as increased hospital admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and more deaths from respiratory causes.
A Need for a Climate + Health Framework
While desert dust storms have been studied from various angles, their health effects and changing particle content have largely been ignored. 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. Furthermore, there is a class of submicron pollutants, including degraded microplastics, metallic nanoparticles, diesel exhaust, and fine particles from degraded tires, which are particularly harmful to human health.
Recommendations for Public Health
For better public health practices, researchers suggest identifying particle content for each dust storm, archiving samples from each desert dust storm, protecting indoor and closed spaces from the smaller dust storm particles, and educating biomedical and meteorological experts jointly about dust storms. By taking these measures, we can better understand how and why particle content in dust storms is changing, help make these storms less hazardous, and develop more comprehensive strategies for protecting people.
In the face of climate change and growing urbanization, desert dust storms are turning into flying waste dumps, carrying a plethora of harmful pollutants. As such, they represent an urgent but overlooked public health crisis that requires attention and action from both medical and meteorological experts. The intersection of climate and health is becoming more evident, and our response to this crisis needs to be as interconnected as the problem itself.