Dust storms are caused when strong, turbulent winds greater than about 30 km per hour, carry fine particles of dust from the surrounding area. Particles that can be picked up during dust storms include:
- microorganisms such as bacteria
- spores of fungi.
Dust storms are short-term events that often occur after periods of intense surface heating (for example, drought or fire) over cleared land or during a cold front.
How dust can affect your health
The lungs can be affected by the small particles that are included in the dust cloud. Particles smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10), about 1/7 the diameter of a human hair, can be inhaled deeply into the sensitive areas of the lungs. These small particles can cause irritation and inflammation.
Larger particles, those greater than PM10, only reach the nasal passage, the mouth, throat or the upper part of the lungs from where they can be expelled, but they can still cause irritation.
Research shows that during dust storms, visits to the emergency department for respiratory and heart-related problems increase above the norm.
Who can be affected?
While all people may feel discomfort, people with pre-existing illnesses such as respiratory or heart-related problems may have their existing symptoms aggravated.
Those most at risk are:
- Infants and children
- People with asthma, bronchitis and emphysema
- People with a heart (cardiovascular) disease and other heart related conditions
- People with diabetes
Those who live in Port Pirie will be more vulnerable to lead exposure during high wind days.
What are the warning signs of difficulty breathing?
If you have asthma, or another chronic respiratory condition, and you experience chest tightness, wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath, you should follow your prescribed action plan.
It is important to see your doctor if your symptoms continue, or if you are concerned in any way.
If you develop chest pain, seek urgent medical help. Call 000 for an ambulance.
How to protect yourself
Ways you can protect yourself include:
- stay inside with closed windows, doors and vents.
- if you have an evaporative air conditioner, switch it to “recycle” or “recirculate”, to reduce the amount of dust coming into your house or room.
- avoid exercise, especially outdoors, to reduce the intake of particles into your lungs
- keep taking your medication as prescribed.
- if you have asthma, ensure you follow your action plan and take your medications as prescribed.
- Wear a well-fitted mask over your mouth and nose to reduce the dust you breathe in if you work in a dusty environment. These masks are special and need to be rated ‘P2’ or ‘P3’ and are available from hardware stores or safety equipment shops. Please note: surgical masks do not prevent dust particles being breathed in. Masks can be hot and uncomfortable to work in, so consider delaying work in the dusty environment until the dust has reduced.
Staying safe on the roads during a dust storm
Dust storms can reduce visibility. Extra caution should be taken when driving a vehicle.
If visibility is low, reduce speed and turn on your vehicle’s headlights. If visibility is too low to drive, park in a safe place to avoid collisions and turn on your hazard lights. Do not park under trees.
If your car has air conditioning, reduce the incoming dust by switching the air intake to recirculate.