The health effects of dust storms in the Southwest United States
Blowing dust events are a common feature of life in West Texas and the Southwestern
United States and are increasing in frequency. The composition of inhaled air varies from
region to region and may include harmful particles, such as particulate matter, bacteria, fungi,
and viruses. There are several types of blowing dust events that can be characterized by
physical observations, including the source of dust, the direction of the wind, the density of the
particulate matter, and several other physical parameters. All blowing dust events have the
potential to cause adverse health effects. Inhalation of dust can cause direct respiratory effects
that range from transient cough to acute fungal infection to acute respiratory failure. Asian
dust storms increase all-cause and respiratory disease emergency room visits and pneumonia
admissions. There is an association between meningococcal meningitis and Saharan dust
storm intrusions into West Africa. Haboob (Arabic for strong wind) dust storms stir up large
amounts of dust from the environment and can blow it into densely populated areas. The
“haboob lung syndrome” has been reported in patients from West Texas who presented with
dusty sputum, sterile cultures, and multilobar infiltrates. Some of these patients required
admission to the hospital for acute respiratory failure and mechanical ventilation. Blowing dust
events are a serious public health issue that can be avoided with prevention. Therefore, it is
important to forecast blowing dust events and to get this information out to the public on days
with an increase in particulate density. The population can benefit from these warnings by
simply wearing a respirator mask on these days and by avoiding unnecessary trips outside.
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