But dust storms are a modern American problem. They are especially common in the Southwest, and have caused both immediate damage, injury, and death, and long-term health consequences from poor air quality.
As we’ll see, dust storms are something everyone, not just people living in dust storm areas, should understand.
What is a Dust Storm?A dust storm is essentially a strong wind that carries large amounts of fine particles, such as silt, clay, dust, and dirt. It picks up these incredibly small particles and transports them hundreds of miles. The small particles swirl into the air, creating the dust storm. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, they become larger with distance, as more and more particles are picked up by the storm.
One of the most impressive, and indeed one of the scariest, aspects of a dust storm is the sheer distance they can travel. Dust storms can spread over hundreds of miles and rise over 10,000 feet in the air. And they can do it all with winds as light a 9 mph, which amounts to a strong breeze.
In many cases, the wind speed of a dust storm reaches about 25 miles per hour, which is certainly a strong wind, but compared to a hurricane or tornado, it’s barely a breeze at all.
For a dust storm to occur, two ingredients are required.
The first is dust (surprised?), which is largely dependent on the climate and region. Most dust storms occur in areas where the soil is loose and very dry. When soil is only loosely held to the surface, it is more likely to be picked up and carried to a new location by wind.
Arid (dry) and semi-arid regions are most susceptible to dust storms. Areas with prolonged drought become increasingly vulnerable because moisture helps hold soil in place and support plant life that bonds soil. It is possible for human activity to cause desertification. Excessive livestock grazing, logging, and harsh farming methods are capable of loosening and drying soil, increasing the likelihood of dust storms.
The second ingredient of a dust storm is wind. Even slight winds, as light as 10 mph can launch dust into the air. When winds pass over, they pick up the dust, sand, and other dry particles.
How wind moves the particles will depend on the size and weight of the particles, but the smallest particles are easy for wind to capture. In some cases. the particles may barely leave the ground and simply roll along the surface.
In some cases, it’s possible for particles to create a chain reaction as they are picked up and dropped. One particle may be picked up by a light breeze and dropped off after a few feet. When it hits the ground, it strikes other particles, loosening them and creating more mass for the dust storm.
Where are Dust Storms Most Common?Dust storms can occur in many parts of the globe, but they most common in areas with extreme dryness and little vegetation. In the United States, the most common areas for dust storms is the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas.
According to an article from the Arizona Daily Star, dust is the third-deadliest weather hazard in Arizona, causing crashes on highways due to limited visibility. Over the last 50 years, the article says, dust storms have caused more fatalities than any other problem in the state except extreme temperatures and flash flooding. When it comes to injuries, dust is actually considered the leader, and dust storms could be the top cause of death if long-term health issues are taken into consideration.
Globally, dust storms are extremely common in the African Sahara region and the Middle East. A map from the World Meteorological Organization shows that health problems from dust are common along the central region of Africa, from the western coast to Sudan and Ethiopia. Areas of India appear to be affected by dust in the air, and Mongolia, which sits on a high desert, has high risk of health problems from desert dust aerosols. A large section of Brazil also has problems with dust storms.
Any area that experiences prolonged drought could eventually have dust storms.
The Health Effects of a Dust StormWe know that dust storms are a threat to the population, but what is the real concern?
Why are particles in the air such a hazard, and what diseases and health conditions can be caused by dust storms? To find out, let’s look at a few specific studies, as well as some of the top authorities on health and well-being.
Many of the studies performed on the relationship between dust storms and human health have been conducted overseas. For example, a study from China found that “dust events” could have an impact on the respiratory and cardiovascular health of children and people sensitive to the issue, such as those with asthma or allergies. The study found that dust events were connected to hospitalization.
Another study looked at the potential health effect of dust storms in Mongolia. The researchers conducted tests on people living in two different areas: urban and rural settings. They performed tests after a dust storm and focused on the eyes and lungs, looking for symptoms such as bloodshot eyes and coughing; information was obtained through interviews. The researchers found eye symptoms were higher among the rural population, suggesting eye problems could occur more frequently in rural populations after a dust storm.
The finer the particles are, the more dangerous they are to human health. Relatively large particles, such as large gains of sand, won’t be inhaled by a human, but can cause damage and irritation to external organs, such as the skin and eyes. When the particles become smaller, that’s when you have the potential for significant long-term health concerns.
A study published in Epidemiology essentially proved that the smaller the particles get, the more dangerous they are to our health. This study found that fine particles have a stronger effect on respiratory conditions than larger particles. These findings seem to be supported by an alternative study, which found that larger particles from windblown dust are not associated with mortality rates.
Particles small enough to be inhaled become trapped in the nose, mouth, and upper respiratory areas and have become associated with respiratory conditions such as asthma and allergic rhinitis. Other diseases, such as pneumonia and tracheitis are also connected to dust storms.
Extremely small particles, ones that are able to reach the lower respiratory tract, are often the biggest concern.
In fact, there are dust particles that are so small they can reach the bloodstream and affect all internal organs. In this way, dust storms can actually cause heart problems and disorders.
Dust pneumonia is a problem in areas with dust storms. Caused by prolonged exposure to dust inhalation, this condition occurs when extremely small particles make their way to the alveoli, which are tiny hairs in the lungs. This problem is marked by coughing, wheezing, and chest pains, and it can eventually develop into a fever or even septic shock.
Across the globe, the effect of dust storms can be severe. A comprehensive study estimated that desert dust caused roughly 402,000 deaths among the over-thirty population across the globe in 2005 alone. In the countries most affected by dust, the issue could be responsible for 15 to 50% of all cardiopulmonary deaths.
How to Protect Yourself from Dust StormsIf you live in an area that is susceptible to dust storms, you need to take precautions to protect yourself if you see a plume of dust coming to your town. Be prepared with all the right materials and you will reduce your chances of immediate injury and long-term health problems.
A mask or bandana can help keep out many of the sand particles that float in the air during a dust storm. The best tool is a respirator mask, but if you don’t have one, a cloth or bandana is better than nothing. You can also moisten the bandana if you have access to water, which will help trap many of the finer particles. Another technique is to apply a small amount of petroleum jelly to the inside of your nostrils to prevent the drying of mucus.
Protecting your eyes in a sandstorm is crucial. Common eyeglasses offer very little protection from dust that is blowing at high speeds, so goggles are often a better choice. If you are unable to find goggles, shield your eyes and avoid looking into the storm.
More than anything else, shelter is your best option during a sandstorm. Even sitting in a car is better than being out in a sandstorm. If you are unable to find real shelter, anything that can block the wind will help.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but high ground can actually be your friend in a dust storm or sand storm. The highest concentrations of particles will be lower in the storm, so finding a place where you can get higher, such as a bluff or hill, will help you avoid the worst of the storm. If the wind is particularly bad, shield yourself from flying objects.
When driving a car, you can try to outrun the storm. While some storms travel over 70 miles per hour, you can outrun most storms and get to safety before they reach you. However, if the storm can’t be avoided, don’t drive through it. Visibility is simply too low to attempt driving through a dust storm. Instead, pull over and turn all your lights off. Keep your foot off the brake pedal so people don’t try to follow you.
Keeping Dust Out of the HomePerhaps the most important aspect of living in a section of the country with dust storms is to make sure you keep the dust out of your home and remove the dust that’s already present. While nothing can ensure complete removal of dust, there are some steps you can take to reduce its presence in the home.
First, you need to make sure your house is properly sealed when a dust storm or sand storm comes around. Sealing the home will keep dust from penetrating into your living space and will give you better health and breathing. While most dust storms will come during the hot summer, you should turn off your air conditioner when a storm occurs. When the air conditioner is running during a dust storm, it will pull dust into its system, which can reduce efficiency and damage the unit.
To keep dust from entering the home on a daily basis, invest in doormats and place them outside the door. Mats in front of the door, in the interior, and removing your shoes before entering the home will help keep dust from becoming a problem.
Even when there is no storm, keep your windows closed so you don’t have dust and sand breezing into the home. Dust can also enter through gaps in the doors and windows, so make sure they are sealed tightly.
Cleaning furniture and bedding can help remove dust that has settled on these surfaces. Wash your sheets and pillow cases about once a week, and replace them with clean material about once a week. A lot of dust can come through the windows, so be sure to wash your draperies as well.
Water can also help you keep the home clean. With water and a mop, you actually remove the dust, not just shift it around. When you use a wet rag or mop, you can simply rinse them out and place them in the wash. Be sure to run your rag over the blinds, which can become loaded with dust.
Take your rugs out and beat them thoroughly, just like an old-time settler. This can be an effective way to remove dust, and you just might get a little exercise!
Use Air Purifiers to Control Indoor DustHaving an effective air purifier can remove many of the airborne contaminants in your home, including dust.
OV200 Air PurifierThe OV200 is a compact yet powerful tool for combatting dust. It uses a HEPA and carbon filtration system that removes over 98% of contaminants in a home, helping you get rid of dander, pollen, and dust. It’s only seven inches deep and less than two feet tall, so you can place it in almost any space to provide purification for a room.
Max HEPA Air PurifierThis excellent air purifier was rated #1 in a comprehensive university study, so you can count on it to give your home advanced filtration. With activated carbon and HEPA filtration, it removes over 99% of airborne particles, leaving your air free of dust that can harm your lungs.
EJ Air PurifierThe EJ120 air cleaner is one of the most advanced purifiers on the market, and it can help you have a clean home with less dust and particles in the air. It has a medical-grade filter that made for superior filtration, and thanks to a powerful yet quiet motor, the purifier can clean an area of 1,500 square feet with two air changes per hour.
If you want to learn more about how our air purifiers can help remove dust, contact Oransi today. We’ll show you how our air purifiers create better air for your home, then help you choose the right products for your need!