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Climate Change and Dust Increase Respiratory Disease

The connection between dust, allergies, and asthma is clear, but the link between the increasing problem of respiratory disease and climate change is not. The confusing lack of clarity around this issue is exacerbated by mixed messages from the very sources that should be helping to clarify it– the U.S. government.

The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a Climate and Health Program (CHP), which, according to the CDC Web site, was designed to help “prevent and adapt to the possible health effects of climate change.” To acknowledge the link between climate change and respiratory disease, the CDC states on its Web site that, “Some experts have even suggested that the global rise in asthma is an early health effect of climate change.”  This further associates climate change and health with air quality. Yet, on the same Web site, the CDC backs away from the issue of climate change by stating, “…there is currently insufficient evidence to determine the likely effects of climate change on PM2.5.”

PM2.5 is the name that describes the small-sized, or fine, particulate matter (2.5 microns) that is able to penetrates deeply into lung tissue. According to the CDC, PM2.5 is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart arrhythmias. PM 2.5 is usually associated with the smoke and haze generated by combustion.

Particles between 2.5 and 10 microns (PM10) are considered to be inhalable. It is usually the particles in this range between PM2.5 and PM10 that make up dust. However, because recent news reports that Saharan dust created haze in Florida skies, the question becomes relevant regarding whether it might be possible that anything smaller than 2.5 microns could be a component of dust, and what percentage of PM2.5 it contains.

Dust is known to affect visibility, humidity, and rainfall patterns, and it carries disease-carrying microbes and allergens as well, making it, in essence, an inanimate vector of communicable disease. Whether PM2.5 can be a component of dust or not, dust has direct effects on the quality of life for everyone, regardless of their opinion regarding climate change. The public health consequences of dust are enormous and deserve to be addressed, preferably with a strong and united support of government agencies worldwide.

Skepticism is healthy, especially for scientists. Finger-pointing, however, should be reserved for four-year-olds playing in the sandbox. Debate about whether the causes of climate change are manmade are completely irrelevant and a waste of time and breath because they are not focused on solving the problems at hand. A prime example is dust, the increased prevalence of which could be caused by drought conditions, and which can, in turn, further contribute to changes in weather patterns. The causes and the consequences of dust are worthy of further study. Which is the cause and which is the effect does not matter. Ultimately, whether dust is a cause or consequence of climate change does not matter. What matters are solutions.

The climate is changing. Anyone with the ability to sense and observe, or who has spent any time at all outdoors recently, has witnessed this first-hand. For anyone who distrusts their own judgment, reams of data from all types of scientists in all corners of the globe support these observations as well. In the immediate future, some places will warm up, and some places will cool down. Water levels and rainfall levels will fluctuate. The point is, change is happening, now.

Those who point to insufficient evidence to verify climate change need to be asked what further evidence they need in order to be convinced. If they cannot come up with specific things that would satisfy them, they either have something to hide or are unwilling to face their own, deep-seated fears, which the presented facts have triggered.

Both the imagined and scientifically modeled consequences of climate change are grave and the stakes are high. Consider dust and the importance of regulating human activity in regard to climate change and respiratory disease. Volcanoes do not apply for permits to erupt. Wind does not need a license to blow, nor rain to fall. And that does not change the fact that significant volumes of volcanic ash added to an already particulate-burdened atmosphere could bring about consequences on the order of magnitude of mass extinction. When no one can breathe any more, none of this will matter.

The government agencies that regulate human activity, like the CDC and the EPA, get caught in the firestorm of opposing opinions. When changes must be made and the stakes are high, some reluctant stakeholders would distract attention from the real facts by blaming human activity for the very real shifts and changes we are all experiencing, and would likely be experiencing anyway, regardless of our activities. Opponents of climate change likely object to what they see as needless business-restricting regulations. What they fail to realize is that these same regulations may represent the human species’ best attempt to come up with a solution for—yes, survival.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 235 million people around the world suffer from asthma. Climate change triggers allergies and asthma through the increases in ambient temperature and ground level carbon dioxide. These increases cause plants to produce more pollen and fungus to release more spores. The additional spores and pollen particles in the air (aka, dust) can trigger asthma and allergies and exacerbate other respiratory diseases.

This “dusty” example of mixed messages from government regarding climate change is part of what gives credence to opposing arguments made by those who choose to believe that climate change does not exist. In the wake of numerous media reports of dust-related weather events, heated discussions are circulating about climate change and its health effects. Sending clear messages about this fact is a matter of public health.

With prolonged drought conditions in California and elsewhere, the frequency of large dust storms around the world is likely to increase, and the effects are global in scale. There can be no doubt that dust and climate change contribute to respiratory disease. Pregnant women, elderly, children, those with existing respiratory disease or compromised immune systems are most at risk, but since everyone breathes, in essence, everyone is at risk.

Opinion by Lane Therrell


CDC Climate and Health Program (Asthma, Respiratory Allergies, and Airway Diseases)
CDC Climate and Health Program (Air Quality and Respiratory Disease)
CDC Climate and Health Program (Aero Allergens)
CDC Climate and Health Program (Asthma, Respiratory Allergies, and Airway Diseases)
EPA (Fast Facts on Particle Pollution)
EPA (Particulate Matter)
EPA (Climate Change and Air Quality)
Hamilton County Environmental Services

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