Saharan Dust Increases Hospitalization And Premature Deaths: The dust cloud is bringing dangerously high levels of fine particulate pollution (PM2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inch in diameter) and PM10 (particles less than 10 microns in diameter).
Air pollution aggravates COVID-19 symptoms, leading to expected increases in hospital admissions from the disease in regions where dust concentrations spike.
The African dust gave most of the air pollution monitors in the Lesser Antilles Islands in the Caribbean an air quality index (AQI) in the red (unhealthy) range for much of the weekend.
The worst air quality was observed on the island of Tobago, just off the northeast coast of South America, where PM10 levels topped out for four hours on June 21 at the upper end of the scale: the brown “Hazardous” category.
The dry air accompanying the dust will also worsen drought conditions gripping many of the islands. Princeton’s Latin America Flood and Drought Monitor shows the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico experiencing particularly intense drought conditions.
Water rationing was imposed on Friday, June 19, in portions of Puerto Rico, where 26% of the island was under severe drought conditions.
Dangerous air pollution episode in U.S. this week
The dust cloud is forecast to push west and northwest this week, invading much of the southeast U.S. from June 25 through June 27.
Air pollution transport models are indicating that the dust will still be very concentrated when it reaches the U.S., and many locations in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana likely will experience an AQI in the orange “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” or red “Unhealthy” range.
A similar air pollution event resulting from African dust occurred during the first week of July 2018, bringing to Texas and Arkansas the worst air pollution of the year.
A PM2.5 episode as widespread and severe as this – even without the COVID-19 pandemic raging – could cause hundreds of premature deaths.
A 2019 study, Effects of fossil fuel and total anthropogenic emission removal on public health and climate, found that the health burden of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution is much higher than had been previously assumed.
That study concluded that outdoor air pollution from PM2.5 and ozone causes 8.79 million premature deaths globally each year.
Of that total, natural sources of outdoor air pollution accounted for 3.24 million deaths per year, and human-caused sources caused 5.55 million deaths per year. A premature air pollution-related death typically occurs about 12 years earlier than it otherwise might have, according to Caiazzo et al., 2013.
According to a 2018 study done by the Health Effects Institute (a U.S. nonprofit corporation funded by EPA and the auto industry), PM2.5 pollution in the U.S. caused approximately 87,000 premature deaths per year between 2010 and 2016.
Air pollution deaths are calculated using epidemiological studies, which correlate death rates with air pollution levels. Air pollution has been proven to increase the incidence of deaths caused by strokes, heart attacks, and lung disease.
As these causes of death result also from other factors – such as lifestyle and family history – they are usually referred to as premature deaths.