11 September 2023
The changing face of Arabian dust storms
Published online 1 June 2023
Dust storms in the Arabian peninsula are changing, and that could have a big impact on human health.
Climate change and land use are altering the frequency and make-up of the sand and dust storms in the Arabian Peninsula. Experts warn that the potential health consequences of these highly regional effects are not being adequately factored into climate change modelling and response.
The Middle East forms part of a global dust belt; regions where human populations live in increasingly close proximity to deserts and are therefore exposed to atmospheric sand and dust.
No two dust storms are the same, as the source of dust can alter the chemical composition and size of the particles. These variations lead to different types of health effects on those in their path. Already, the prevalence of respiratory conditions, such as asthma and allergies, is increasing in parts of the Middle East, with dust storms a possible contributing factor.
Scientists say there is a growing need for a better regional understanding of how these dust storms are shifting with climate change, and what effects that could have on human health.
Environmental scientists, Claire Williams, from the American University in Washington DC, and Fatin Samara, from the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, have proposed a framework to enable more accurate analysis of the content of dust storms, with the aim of guiding efforts to reduce their potential health effects.
Williams says that, currently, the effect of climate change on sand and dust storms, and the flow-on effects on human health, are a relatively minor part of global climate reports, such as from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“We can't assume all the storms are the same and I think it's easy to do that if you're looking at this question at a planetary level,” Williams says. “Most of the IPCC are looking at global dust emissions at a planetary scale, and we're looking at a regional and local scale.”
Williams and Samara are proposing an A-B-C-X classification system for the content of individual dust storms.
‘A’ is the anthropogenic content of dust: waste such as microplastics and nanoparticles. ‘B’ is bioaerosols, which include algae, bacteria and fungi. ‘C’ is crustal particles, referring to naturally occurring sand and dust, and ‘X’ represents the potential chemical interactions between these components, which could alter their effects.
“There's actually a chemical bonding that goes on between diesel exhaust and bacterial endotoxins and allergens,” Williams says, suggesting that these interactions could generate ‘neo-allergens’ that have the potential to be more allergenic in humans.
Environmental and plant scientist, Ali Al-Dousari, from the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research in Kuwait, who wasn’t involved in the study, says dust storms are already changing across the Arabian Peninsula because of changing land use; for example, in Syria because of the conflict. “There are many abandoned farms, and this becomes a source area and hotspot for sand dust storms,” Al-Dousari says. And there are health consequences, he says, pointing to outbreaks of pollen allergy in regions that hadn’t before experienced these conditions, as dust storms transport biological materials into new regions.
Williams, C, Samara, F. Changing particle content of the modern desert dust storm: a climate x health problem. Environ Monit Assess 195, 706 (2023).