Health Effects of Dust
Why is Dust a Public Health Issue?
National Ambient Air Quality Standards were established to protect public health from harmful levels of the most common pollutants. With the enactment of the Federal Clean Air act of 1970, standards were developed for six major pollutants. Particulate matter is one of the six major pollutants. These six pollutants are called “criteria pollutants” because standards were set using health-based criteria. Particulate matter less than or equal to 10 microns in diameter is commonly referred to as “PM10” and can be made up of a variety of components including dust, smoke, and soot.
Throughout most of the year, air quality in most of New Mexico is very good. However, on days when winds are high, dust concentrations can be high enough to exceed State and Federal health standards. Counties in southern New Mexico (Chaves, Doña Ana, Lea, and Luna Counties) have experienced exceedances of the health standard for PM10.
Why Should I Be Concerned About Dust Storms?
Dust is made up of tiny particles floating in the air. These tiny particles can get past our bodies’ natural defenses and build up in our respiratory systems. This can harm sensitive lung tissue. During severe dust storms, more dust can get into the lungs. Dust irritates the lungs and can trigger allergic reactions, as well as asthma attacks. In people who already have respiratory problems these attacks can be serious and cause breathing problems. Dust can also cause coughing, wheezing and runny noses. Breathing a lot of dust over a long period of time can cause chronic breathing and lung problems.
In addition, dust storms are a safety concern and can sometimes create extremely hazardous situations on public roadways.
Who Should Take Special Precautions?
Breathing too much dust can potentially harm anyone. However, the following groups are at the hightest risk:
- Infants, children, teens, the elderly and pregnant women
- People with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or other respiratory conditions
- People with heart disease
- Healthy adults working or exercising outdoors
What Can I Do to Protect Others and Myself?
Since the small dust particles are the most harmful, the best precaution is simply to avoid going outside during severe dust storms. If you must go out, spend as little time outside as possible, and avoid hard exercise. Wearing some type of covering over your nose and mouth can provide some protection from large particles.