Sahara Sand Storms and Fine Particle Pollution: Health Risks and Precautions

2024-04-06 17:50:42

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POLLUTION – The sky will once again take on a strange color in the coming days, but the phenomenon is starting to become familiar to the French. A cloud of sand from the Sahara is expected to cross France this Saturday April 6 and Sunday April 7. And could locally trigger an episode of fine particle pollution.

In parallel with the heat peak expected this weekend across France, with temperatures sometimes reaching 30°C, a mass of desert dust will break away from North Africa to rise towards France and continue towards the rest of Europe over the next three or four days, as shown by the models.

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If the visual effect is original for photos, it is less so for health. Because dust is not the only element carried in these clouds, as you can see in our video at the top of the articlebroadcast in April 2022 on the occasion of a similar phenomenon.

Radioactive residues in the sand of the Sahara?

In each episode of this type, it is common to hear that: “the cloud of sand coming from the Sahara desert is radioactive”: In fact, the dust carried by this type of storm does contain cesium 137, a radioactive element . However, its concentration in the air is so low that it does not represent any danger to your health.

The level of radioactive particles is in fact considered “negligible” by the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN). “Radioactivity in the air in France will be a million times lower than what was observed during the Chernobyl accident,” explains Jean-Christophe Gariel, director of the “Environment” department at IRSN for Le HuffPost.

Much more dangerous fine particle pollution

On the other hand, the sand carried by the winds from the Sahara causes fine particle pollution, much more dangerous than its radioactivity. Dust adds to already polluted air, particularly in large cities. “We already breathe fine particles from road traffic or industry, it’s additional pollution, so it will always be toxic pollution because it is too much,” explains Thomas Bourdrel, researcher at the University of Strasbourg .

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These particles can, as during pollution peaks due to automobile traffic, infiltrate the lungs and be a real risk for vulnerable people (elderly people, asthmatics, young children, etc.). “Inhaled sand particles can serve as vehicles for bacteria, pathogenic viruses (…) They also promote inflammation of the lower respiratory tract, which can complicate respiratory infections or chronic pneumonia,” warns biologist Claude Gustave on the 15th. March on Twitter.

To prevent respiratory illnesses, the scientist advises wearing a mask during episodes of sand clouds. Usually ineffective at filtering ultra-fine particles from the air, the surgical mask retains larger sand dust. The best thing is to “reduce intense sporting activities” and “avoid areas with heavy road traffic, during peak periods”, advises the Ministry of Health.

These pollution peaks caused by natural phenomena, such as sandstorms from the Sahara, remain rare. The vast majority is due to pollution from human activities, specifies the Ministry of Health. The French Public Health agency estimates that at least 48,000 people die from fine particles in the air each year, or 9% of national mortality.

Also see on HuffPost: Sahara sand gives the sky an astonishing hue in France

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