As African Dust Descends on Houston, Here’s What You Need to Know

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It’s become a summertime tradition in Houston: as soon as temperatures warm and the cool waters of pools beckon, a thick gray haze starts to settle over Greater Houston.

It’s dust blowing in from the Saharan desert, bringing with it brilliant sunsets — and a cacophony of coughing.

African dust season has officially arrived, and for some sensitive individuals, the clouds of fine particles that linger over the Houston skyline can spell respiratory distress.

Most of the dust remains suspended in the air thousands of feet above the ground, but some of it can — and does — drift to the ground. Called “particulate matter,” these very fine particles can carry bacteria, funguses and viruses, and can wedge deep into the lungs, causing a variety of health problems, like coughing, irritation of the airways, or even difficulty breathing.

“Not much research has been conducted on the particular effects of this dust on the Houston population, but we do know that breathing in particulate matter in general is pretty unhealthy,” said Saffana Hassan, MD, an allergist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Hospital. “Long-term exposure to fine particles, especially those less than 10 micrometers in diameter, can be dangerous to both our lungs and our hearts, and the effects are especially strong in those who already have compromised immune systems.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, small particle pollution has been linked to asthma exacerbations, decreased lung function, chronic cough, irregular heartbeats, nonfatal heart attacks, and even premature death among those already suffering from heart or lung disease.

African dust season typically runs through July, with intermittent episodes that are heavier at times than others. When the haze is here, people who are especially sensitive to changes in air quality – such as individuals with asthma, allergies and other lung conditions – may notice that they are having more difficulty breathing. Elderly individuals and young children are also at a higher risk.

Taking steps to breathe easier

Exposure to African dust may lead to wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath.

Those who are at higher risk should pay special attention to air quality when outdoors and limit their time outdoors when the air quality is poorer, especially when there is little moisture in the air. 

If you have to be outside, consider using a face mask.  An N95 mask from your local hardware store can be very helpful. In the absence of a face mask, holding a handkerchief or small wet towel over your mouth and nose will also keep out the dust.

Asthma patients should minimize their time outdoors as much as possible and keep inhalers handy. 

Steps can also be taken to mitigate exposure to particulate matter in the air indoors by installing more efficient air conditioning filters. Measurements on air filtration, like the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) describe the the ability of a filter to remove synthetic and atmospheric dust from an air stream.  

Also remember, once you are back indoors, the dust can cling to you. Be sure to shower and change out of the clothes worn outdoors.

If the air quality is causing you consistent difficulty breathing, consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

By: Evan Koch

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