By Haya Albaker
Sand and dust storms are meteorological phenomena that happen mostly in arid regions of the world where sand and dust particles are carried from one place to the other by strong winds. They are known to reduce visibility and have a negative impact on people, and especially on those with respiratory illnesses. However, many people are not aware of the wider negative health impacts that can be associated with sand and dust storms. These dangers can vary based on where these storms come from and where they end up.
What comes to mind when you hear about sand and dust storms? Probably large amounts of sand and dust carried by a strong wind into the atmosphere reducing visibility and making it hard to breath as normal. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO, 2019):
Sand and dust storms are common meteorological hazards in arid and semi-arid regions. They are usually caused by thunderstorms – or strong pressure gradients associated with cyclones – which increase wind speed over a wide area. These strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere, transporting them hundreds to thousands of kilometres away.
Annually, an estimate of 2,000 million tons of dust gets released into the atmosphere (Khoshnevisan, 2019). While it might be well known that sand and dust storms have many negative impacts on human health, the economy, and the environment, all of the impacts we usually think of are based on us believing that what is being carried around and breathed in is just sand and dust particles from arid/desert lands, sand dunes and eroded rocks. We may also be aware that these storms can reduce visibility, maybe cause a few road accidents, may cause flight delays and cancellations, and harm people who suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Therefore, many people do not consider sand and dust storms to be a life-threatening hazard.
However, Sand and dust storms can have many more negative affects especially on human health. To understand the actual dangers of sand and dust storms we need to understand their actual properties. For instance, the size of a dust particle is one of the determinants of its hazardous potential to human health. We cannot breathe in particles larger than 10 μm, which means that they can only harm us externally, for instance irritate our eyes or skin. Whereas particles smaller than 10 μm can be inhaled and thus can cause more damage to us internally. These small particles are the ones responsible for respiratory disorders like asthma tracheitis, pneumonia, allergic rhinitis and silicosis. Finer dust particles can cause even more damage to our health. They can go as far as entering our bloodstream and affect our internal organs, they can cause cardiovascular disorders for example (WMO, 2019). It is also well established that sand and dust storms can also be more dangerous when they transmit infectious diseases like Meningococcal meningitis, which is “a bacterial infection of the thin tissue layer that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, can result in brain damage and, if untreated, death in 50% of cases.” (WMO, 2019). Most people are not aware of the relationship between sand and dust storms and these negative health issues.
Another determinant is how long can the particle remain suspended in the atmosphere after the storm. Dust particles also have different lifetimes in the atmosphere, particles with a diameter of more than 10 μm are only suspended in the air for a few hours, while smaller particles can remain suspended for more than 10 days (WMO, 2019). Since dust particles can be present in the air even when the storm had past, this can mean that the affect of the harmful particles of whatever was brought to the area by the storm could remain in the air and may be breathed in by people long after the storm had past too.
Many examples of the harmful effects of sand and dust storms have been witnessed in Kuwait (Figure 1). Kuwait is a country in the middle-eastern region of the world, where dust storms are associated with all the effects mentioned above along with strong winds due to its geographic location, that can cause the falling of trees in public roads, houses and parks, and the destruction of parking shades of parking garages. Some of these car shades are made of sharp aluminium material that may injure or even kill people. Sometimes these sand and dust storms are also associated with thunderstorms due to the sudden air pressure drop in the atmosphere. The strong winds associated with the storm can bring the waves up between 3-7 feet (Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), 2018), making it a very dangerous for those at sea. However, what most people are not aware of is that airborne particles carried with sand and dust particles in these storms can also pose very serious threats to human health, and consequently human life especially in that region of the world. This is because not all sand and dust storms are the same, after all they all pass through different landscapes carrying around different particles of different things. Sand and dust storms are not only comprised of sand and dust, but also a whole range of particles depending on where the wind had passed and when. The dust that passes over Kuwait usually come from the north-western side with strong winds of 70 km per hour (Arab News, 2019). This is the side where the Iraqi war takes place.
Figure 1: Low visibility during a sand storm in Kuwait on 26 April 2018 (image author’s own)
Scientists in Kuwait are now investigating the contents of sand and dust storms as they believe that the ones that hit the country various times a year could be carrying carcinogenic (cancer causing) particles. This is due to the use of unconventional weapons (chemical and depleted uranium (DU)) in the war in Iraq from 2003 to this day. The reason sand and dust storms become life threatening when using unconventional weapons like DU is because, “depleted uranium bullets, or DU produce dust and toxic dust and radioactive materials at the time of hit and only 20 to 70 percent of the bullets burn at the time of the hit, and as a result radioactive suspended particles pollute the environment in the range of 50m” (Pour-Heidari et al. 2006. Cited in Khoshnevisan et al., 2019). People are exposed to these harmful particles through inhalation, eating and drinking, and not only in the 50m radius, as during sand and dust storms, these materials are carried away even further in the atmosphere increasing the risk of cancer in Iraq and the neighbouring countries. According to a study in 2001 conducted in Fallujah, an Iraqi city hit by DU weapons, revealed that “cancer had increased fourfold compared to years before the American invasion, and the types are very much similar to those reported in Hiroshima, Japan.” (Khoshnevisan et al., 2019).
On the other hand, sometimes dust and sand storms cause major public scares. For instance, the dust storm that hit Australia in September 2009 cause a huge stir in the media. This is because the “red storm” (Figure 2) was believed to be carrying radioactive carcinogenic particles and blowing it over some of the big cities in the country as it has passed over a uranium mine in the South Australian desert (Mercer, 2009). Although some scientists claimed that it is unlikely that the radioactive material was carried in the dust storm, many activists believe it has, and were very concerned about the harmful health effects that could follow from such an event.
Figure 2 Red storm in Australia 23 September 2009 (Spencer, 2009)
This raises the questions of how much do people actually know about sand and dust storms in their countries and how much do they do to protect themselves from the harmful effects of these storms. It is essential that people know what is brought to them by these storms that invade their surroundings, outdoors and indoors. If they knew they would be more cautious when going out in dusty conditions and they would take all the necessary measures to keep the sand and dust out of their homes.
Arab News, (2019). Dust storms halt maritime operations in Kuwait. Retrieved from: <http://www.arabnews.com/node/1436911/middle-east> (Accessed 4 July 2019)
Mercer, P., (2009). Australia ‘uranium’ dust concerns. BBC News Retrieved from: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/8277924.stm> (accessed 4 July 2019)
Khoshnevisan, D., Farshchi, P., Karimi, D., & Pournouri, M. (2019). Environmental pollution in the common borders between Iran and Iraq and the international governing documents. EurAsian Journal of BioSciences, 13(1), 541-548.
Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), (2018). Dust storm hits Kuwait with chance of thunderstorm. Retrieved from: <https://www.kuna.net.kw/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2692221&language=en> (accessed 4 July 2019)
Spencer, C., (2009). A man photographs Sydney Harbour bridge. [photograph] Available at : < https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2009/sep/23/sydney-dust-storms> (accessed 4 July 2019)
World Meteorological Organization (2019). Sand and dust storms. Retrieved from: < https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/focus-areas/environment/SDS> (Accessed 4 July 2019)