How toxic is African dust? How to protect yourself

African dust Acropolis Athens

Dr Stamatoula Tsikrikas explains the suffocating atmosphere of the last few days in Greece due to the African dust and provides recommendations for managing and protecting from its toxins.

In the last few days, Greece has been covered by a toxic mixture of African dust, which, according to meteorological forecasts, will remain for the next few days, creating a suffocating atmosphere.

This phenomenon has occurred before. The dust movement from the Sahara to Europe is seasonal and most frequent from February to June and late autumn to early winter. Nevertheless, due to climate change's effect on temperature and humidity in recent years, these transcontinental dust movements can be recorded throughout the year and become more intense.

Similar natural phenomena have occurred in the last five years. The aerosol coming from the regions of the Western and Northern Sahara was found to contain 182 million tons of dust, a very large amount capable of filling 689,290 trucks. The last five years also recorded an increase in visits to the Department of Emergencies due to acute respiratory symptoms.

Heavy metals such as zinc, lead, chromium, arsenic, and nickel were found in samples in different amounts and concentrations each time.

Due to its airborne transport, even at distances of many kilometres, the dust particles can be integrated with pollen, bacteria and fungi, creating a highly toxic and dangerous mixture for the human body, especially the respiratory system. This particular dust, due to the size of the inhaled particles, can reach the smallest airways of the lungs and cause intense irritation and inflammation in the bronchioles.

Individuals should seek immediate medical help and advice in the event of clinical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, severe and irritating cough, chest pain, persistent sneezing, lacrimation, and hoarseness.

Although everyone can show symptoms from the respiratory system, people who belong to vulnerable and sensitive population groups, such as young children, pregnant and lactating women, people with cardiovascular diseases, with immunosuppression and with underlying diseases, may present a more severe clinical picture.

More specifically, for patients suffering from chronic respiratory problems, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and bronchial asthma, if they experience symptoms compatible with exacerbation or worsening of the stable course of the disease, to be in constant contact with the treating pulmonologist, for possible modification of their medication and receiving additional medical care.

A strong recommendation is to avoid outdoor sports activities and heavy physical and manual work as far as possible, as these require an increased respiratory rate. Especially during hours with high dust concentrations, it is recommended to stay in well-ventilated indoor spaces.

Written by Dr. Stamatoula Tsikrikas, a Pulmonologist at SOTIRIA Hospital, Secretary of the Pan-European Pulmonology Society's Tobacco Control Group, and President of the Union of Pulmonologists of Greece. Translated by Paul Antonopoulos

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