Earlier this summer, a historically massive dust cloud from the Saharan Desert traversed the Atlantic Ocean, bringing dense haze and sand to the Gulf of Mexico. Although ocean-crossing dust clouds are normal in summer months, the cloud this year was denser and nearly twice as large as that in 2019. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what made 2020’s plume so intense, but they do know that dust storms are increasing in the United States because of anthropogenic climate change. And as more and more humans are exposed to coarse particulate matter (PM2.5–10) in the air, understanding the health consequences of these storms will become increasingly important.
In a new study, Rublee et al. investigated whether past dust storms were tied to an increase in critical care hospital visits. Using admissions data obtained from health care provider Premier Inc. and meteorological data of dust storms between 2000 and 2015 from the U.S. National Weather Service, the researchers tested for an association between increases in air pollution and increases in visits to intensive care units (ICUs) in the same area. After controlling for various factors like temperature, dew point, and other air pollution, the team found that total ICU visits increased by 4.8% on the day of a dust storm. Looking only at respiratory ICU admissions, they found an increase of 9.2% on the day of the storm and an increase of 7.5% for the following 5 days. No association was found with increased cardiovascular admissions.
The association highlights the significant effects of dust storms on human health and health care usage, according to the authors. As the United States warms, researchers anticipate that dust storms—especially in the West and Southwest—will worsen. Understanding how and when ICU services may be stressed in the wake of future storms should prove valuable to hospital administrators and other decision-makers. (GeoHealth, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020GH000260, 2020)
—David Shultz, Science Writer