Dust storms are natural events, and are common in parts of the world with dryland areas. Much of Australia's land surface is made up of deserts and semi-arid rangelands. Periods of severe and widespread drought can dramatically increase the likelihood of major dust storms, particularly during the summer months.
Dust storms reduce air quality and visibility, and may have adverse effects on health, particularly for people who already have breathing-related problems. This fact sheet outlines the health risks, and explains what you can do to avoid or reduce the impact of dust storms on your health.
Dust and respiration
Dust particles vary in size from coarse (non-inhalable), to fine (inhalable), to very fine (respirable).
Coarse dust particles generally only reach as far as the inside of the nose, mouth or throat. Smaller or fine particles, however, can get much deeper into the sensitive regions of the respiratory tract and lungs. These smaller dust particles have a greater potential to cause serious harm to your health.
Commonly, particles in dust storms tend to be coarse or non-respirable and do not pose a serious health threat to the general public. However, some people with pre-existing breathing-related problems, such as asthma and emphysema, may experience difficulties.
Exposure and health effects
The most common symptoms experienced during a dust storm are irritation to the eyes and upper airways. People who may be more vulnerable than others are:
- infants, children and adolescents
- the elderly
- people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema
- people with heart disease
- people with diabetes.
For these people, exposure to a dust storm may:
- trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks
- cause serious breathing-related problems
- contribute to cardiovascular or heart disease
- contribute to reduced life span.
Prolonged exposure to airborne dust can lead to chronic breathing and lung problems, and possibly heart disease.
The following precautions can help you protect yourself and minimise the adverse effects of a dust storm:
- Avoid outdoor activity. If you must go outside, spend as little time outside as possible.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a mask or damp cloth to reduce exposure to dust particles. A P2 or P3 mask, available from hardware stores, should block even the finest particles if fitted correctly over the nose and mouth.
- Avoid vigorous exercise, especially if you have asthma, diabetes or a breathing-related condition.
- Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed.
- Stay in air-conditioned premises, if possible.
If you are an asthmatic or have a respiratory condition and you develop symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, or chest pain, follow your prescribed treatment plan. If symptoms do not settle, seek medical advice.
Dust storms and safety
Visibility deteriorates very quickly during a dust storm. If you are on the road and your ability to drive safely is impaired by poor visibility, reduce your speed. Be prepared to pull off the road if visibility deteriorates to less than 100m. If your car is air-conditioned, reduce the amount of dust entering your car by switching the air intake to 'recirculate'.
For further information and advice, contact the Environmental Health section of your local council or your local Public Health Unit.