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Airborne Dust: Adverse Effects on Health and Safety of Citizens

Recently, Cyprus has been surrounded by a wave of extremely high concentrations of dust which may have significant negative effects on the health of citizens, particularly of vulnerable populations.

The term “dust” has no precise scientific meaning, but is usually defined as a solid that has been broken down into fine particles.

Most dust clouds contain particles of widely varying sizes. The size of the particles is just as important as the nature of the dust in determining whether it is hazardous.

Larger dust particles are visible to the naked eye and are deposited in the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract.

However, the most dangerous types of dust are those with very small particles that are invisible to the human eye. These types of particles are small enough to be inhaled but, at the same time, large enough to remain trapped in the lung tissue and not exhaled.

What makes dust very dangerous is that oftentimes the ultrafine particles which can remain suspended in the air for long periods and travel great distances can chemically interact with other foreign particles in the air, such as toxic metals and microorganisms, making the dust toxic, infectious and, therefore, harmful to the human body.

Different types of dust particles have different health effects. For example, respirable crystalline silica dust causes scarring of the lungs, and inhalable lead dust can damage the central nervous system.

Dust particles small enough to be inhaled may lead to:

– irritation of the eyes

– coughing

– sneezing

– allergic rhinitis

– fever (in case of infection)

– asthma attacks

For people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or people with heart diseases, even small increases in dust concentration may trigger or worsen their symptoms.

High Risk Groups (people who are more likely to develop health problems from long term exposure to high levels of dust) include:

– Infants and young children

– Older adults (aged 65 years and above)

– People with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including smokers and people with cardiovascular diseases.

– Kidney patients

– People with immunodeficiency

However, dust can also affect even those who have no health problems.

Tips to protect your health during periods of high dust levels:

– Limit unnecessary exposure.

– Avoid outdoor physical activity.

– If you must be outdoors for a long period of time, you should wear a protective face mask.

– If there is air purifier equipment available, you should make sure it is being utilised.

– In case you belong to vulnerable groups, it is important to act proactively and talk with your doctor for guidance on precautionary measures.

– If you have been affected by dust and you have developed symptoms, you should seek immediate medical advice on therapy and treatment for your symptoms.

Dust storms are a major hazard that can be hardly controlled. Accurate and reliable information, and adherence to precautionary measures are perhaps the only weapon we have to protect ourselves against these adverse climatic events.

Bibliography

Vilcins Dwan et al. Updates in Air Pollution: Current Research and Future Challenges. Annals of Global Health. 2024

Jesse D. Berman. Air Pollution and Health-New Advances for an Old Public Health Problem. Jama Netw Open. 2024;7(3):e2354551.

World Health Organization. Guidance on air pollution and health. 2022

Bart Ostro, Yewande Awe, Ernesto Sánchez-Triana. Pollution Management and Environmental Health. A review of health implications of the dust component of air pollution. 2021

Written by Andreas Pylazeris, MPharm, FD, MClinPharm UK