When Should I Worry About...

Surviving Houston Amid Saharan Dust & Heat Waves

June 16, 2022

By Ella Hohmann

As if the heat wave wasn't enough, the large Saharan dust cloud that arrived in Texas this week poses additional health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations.

Dr. Benjamin Saldana, medical director of the Houston Methodist Emergency Care Centers, says the dust carries disease particles most dangerous to the young and elderly and those with asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"If we don't help people prepare, we will see increased ER visits and people with acute impacts," says Dr. Saldana. "At-risk populations will start having exacerbations."

Dr. Saldana says he expects that as a result of the dust cloud, Houston will see increases in numerous viruses, including influenza and COVID-19.

But Dr. Saldana adds there are many things you can do to protect yourselves and your most vulnerable loved ones.

First, however, some dust cloud basics:

What is Saharan dust?

Saharan dust is an annual thing in Houston. Every summer, trade winds bring an estimated 180 million metric tons of what's known as the Saharan Air Layer across the Atlantic Ocean, a layer characterized by a mass of very dry and dusty air.

Dr. Saldana notes that Saharan dust clouds have multiple effects, both beneficial and adverse.

On one hand, they tend to suppress hurricane activity, keeping sea surface temperatures low and quelling moist air above. Warm sea surface temperatures and high humidity are keys to storm formation.

However, on the other hand, the dust has many adverse effects on the population. Strong winds and fine dust strongly impact humans, especially those with lung illness.

Saharan dust can irritate the lungs

An average grain of beach sand measures in at around 90 microns, or about 0.0035 of an inch. A grain of salt is about 60 microns long, and an average strand of hair has a diameter of 50 microns.

Dust in general usually measures about 10 microns. Anything less than that can enter the upper airway of the lungs. Even smaller particles can then enter the air sacs and become an irritant. Saharan desert dust is particularly small, about 2.5 microns.

The Saharan dust particles, usually measuring between 1 to 5 microns, are both small enough to enter the lungs and act as irritants but also large enough to act as vessels for even smaller particles, such as Covid-19, which measures only 0.5 microns.

And when you factor in three-digit temperatures and humidity…

With increased temperatures, the body heats up and the rate of respiration and volume of breath change. People breathe deeper and more rapidly to take in needed oxygen, making even those without pre-existing conditions more susceptible to lung irritation.

But Dr. Saldana notes that vulnerable populations are especially impacted by the dust particles, which can carry disease. The humidity helps the dust particles grab onto more disease particles and carry them around, often directly into the lungs of unsuspecting humans.

Some risks of the heat-humidity-dust combination, according to Dr. Saldana:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Bronchitis
  • Covid-19
  • Stroke
  • Exhaustion

6 ways you can prepare and protect your health

The situation may seem dire, but Dr. Saldana says there are numerous things you can do to protect yourself and those around you. For instance:

1. Be aware of the facts

Important to protecting yourself is understanding that this combination of weather events can have many devastating downstream effects.

2. Avoid the heat

Heat exhaustion, also called heat illness, is when a person's body overheats as a result of exposure to hot weather. With temperatures skyrocketing, it is important to stay inside and to stay hydrated, especially in the middle of the day when temperatures are the highest. When you go outside, be sure to dress for the heat and seek air conditioning or shade as often as possible.

3. Know the signs of heat exhaustion

Common signs of heat-related illness to look out for include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting.

4. Avoid exposure

Exposure to the Saharan dust can be minimized by taking proactive steps such as getting a filter in your home or planning activities based on dust levels that generally tend to be lower in the mornings and at night.

5. Know who's at higher risk

Protect vulnerable populations by checking in on their health and avoiding contact if you are sick to prevent passing on any illnesses.

6. Wear masks

Because they are able to filter anything larger than 0.3 microns, masks are an effective preventative strategy to avoid breathing in dust particles and viral particles. Especially if you are part of the risk groups, mask wearing is a very effective form of self-protection.

Will this be another record-setting dust storm?

Time will tell if this dust cloud rivals the late-June 2020 one, which was so enormous it was dubbed "Godzilla." The Godzilla plume raised the concentration of fine particulates (PM 2.5) to a level exceeding the EPA air quality standard in about 40 percent of observation stations in the South.

The new dust cloud, which has covered more than 2.2 million square miles of the tropical Atlantic Ocean, is so large it was spotted by a satellite stationed nearly a million miles away from Earth.

[Feature Photo: Uday Devineni, 2022]

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