AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Nicknamed the “Godzilla Dust Cloud” by some weather experts, a nearly 5,000-mile-long plume of Saharan dust that is visible from space has moved across the Atlantic Ocean and is now making its way through the southeastern United States, where it is raising public health concerns, particularly for older adults with asthma or pulmonary disease.
"Our lungs are the one organ of the body that is exposed to everything. When you breathe in, you breathe in whatever is in the atmosphere. With something like this [dust storm], you are going to be inhaling potentially dangerous particles,” Priscilla Perruzzi, clinical supervisor of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Department at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a telephone interview.
Airborne dust particles could trigger reactions, such as coughing or shortness of breath, in patients whose lungs are damaged by disease, Perruzzi said. For this population, she advises avoiding the outdoors when air quality is poor. If you do go outside, she says a mask may help filter dust from entering your lungs.
The City of New Orleans Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness this week cautioned residents that “Godzilla” is “one of the most extreme” summer dust plumes in recent history, and could be particularly dangerous to children and adults with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes, as well as people with COVID-19.
"Anyone with respiratory issues or vulnerable to poor air quality should pay very close attention to advisories and take health precautions that can help minimize the effects from this dust storm,” said Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Health Department. Those at higher risk should: monitor the level of air particles in your area; avoid outdoor activity; cover your nose and mouth with a mask/face covering outdoors; avoid vigorous exercise; stay indoors, with windows and doors closed; and stay in air-conditioned premises, if possible.
The dust plume is expected to travel across the Southeast this weekend, according to the National Weather Service, which said it would likely bring “hazy skies during the day, locally reduced visibility, and degraded air quality. However, this could also make for some very colorful sunrises and sunsets with deeper oranges and reds compared to normal."
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The technical name for the phenomenon is the “Saharan Air Layer,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tracks the dust plumes that typically form during the late spring, summer and early fall. Winds in North Africa loft about 800 million metric tons of desert dust into the air, often scattering the dust thousands of miles away, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said.
Researchers have long studied the health consequences associated with the Saharan Air Layer in Africa and southern Europe. A study led by Susanne Bauer, an atmospheric modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, suggested that airborne dust was responsible for about 546,000 premature deaths in Africa in 2016. The effects of dust were especially pronounced in West Africa.