School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences Faculty Publications and Presentations

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Risks associated with dust hazards are often underappreciated, a gap between the knowledge pool and public awareness that can be costly for impacted communities. This study reviews the emission sources and chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of airborne soil particles (dust) and their effects on human and environmental health and safety in the Pan-American region. American dust originates from both local sources (western United States, northern Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina) and long-range transport from Africa and Asia. Dust properties, as well as the trends and interactions with criteria air pollutants, are summarized. Human exposure to dust is associated with adverse health effects, including asthma, allergies, fungal infections, and premature death. In the Americas, a well-documented and striking effect of soil dust is its association with Coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley fever, an infection caused by inhalation of soil-dwelling fungi unique to this region. Besides human health, dust affects environmental health through nutrients that increase phytoplankton biomass, contaminants that diminish water supply and affect food (crops/fruits/vegetables and ready-to-eat meat), spread crop and marine pathogens, cause Valley fever among domestic and wild animals, transport heavy metals, radionuclides and microplastics, and reduce solar and wind power generation. Dust is also a safety hazard to road transportation and aviation, in the southwestern US where blowing dust is one of the deadliest weather hazards. To mitigate the harmful effects, coordinated regional and international efforts are needed to enhance dust observations and prediction capabilities, soil conservation measures, and Valley fever and other disease surveillance.

Key Points

  • Human exposure to dust has been associated with adverse health effects, including asthma, fungal infections, and premature death

  • Dust provides nutrients to ecosystems, pollutes water and food, spreads pathogens and radionuclides, and reduces solar generation

  • Dust is a major safety hazard to road transportation, aviation, and marine navigation

Plain Language Summary

Soil particles suspended in the air, commonly known as dust, impose substantial risks to many sectors of society, including human health, environmental health, transportation safety and the general economy. This work focuses on the dust effects in the Pan-American region, where the knowledge is rather fragmented, but impacts are costly. Dust in the Americas either comes from local sources or is transported by winds from Asia and Africa. Human exposure to dust can cause adverse health effects, such as asthma, Valley fever, and even death. Dust affects the environment by supplying nutrients to ecosystems, contaminating water and food, spreading pathogens, microplastics, heavy metals and radionuclides, and reducing solar and wind power generation. Dust is also one of the deadliest weather hazards particularly in the southwestern United States. Finally, the measures to mitigate these harmful effects include coordinated dust prediction and early warning, soil conservation, and public health surveillance.


© 2023 The Authors.

Publication Title

Reviews of Geophysics




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