Health aspects

Atmospheric sand and dust has numerous implications for the global public and ecosystem health. Two billion people are directly affected by sand and dust, because they are living on the arid 34 percent of the Earth’s land surface. The population living far away from the source region is exposed as well to a less extent.

The atmospheric transport of dust particles might provide a pathway for bacteria, molds and fungi hitchhiking on the dust-borne particles [1]. Approximately 10,000 microbes/g of soil are transported. Through the long-range transport mechanism arid regions are an important source for viable microorganisms [2]. Moreover they are a source for tiny particles (PM2.5), which impair health including respiratory and cardio-vascular problems (bronchial tubes, asthma, heart stress) and eye infections. In some endemic regions spores and bacteria carried by dust can cause diseases.

The impact of dust particles on the respiratory system by inhalation depends on the aerosol mass and its toxicity, which is influenced by the chemical and physical characteristics of the particles [3]. These factors in turn influence the way in which the particles are delivered to the body [4]. Typical pathological responses to dust particles are silicosis and asbestosis.

One example for an endemic disease is valley fever. It is an endemic illness caused by inhalation of airborne spores from a soil-dwelling fungus. This fungus is commonly found in the deserts of the southwestern United States, Central and South America [5, 6]. The outbreaks of valley fever are following dust storm exposure, depending on climatic factors [7, 5].

Another disease which may be linked to dusty conditions is Meningococcal disease (Meningococcal Meningitis (MCM)) in West Africa. One characteristics of the disease is yearly epidemic outbreaks [8]. The seasonal and spatial patterns have been shown to be linked to dry and dusty weather [8], although a direct causal relationship is not found yet. MCM is a major public health problem in Africa, so that predicting the epidemics could be beneficial for prevention by means of vaccination plans [9].

The MERRIT project investigates the relation of the disease and climate in cooperation with the WHO and WMO.



[1] A.G. Cook, P. Weinstein, J.A. Centeno; Health effects of natural dust: Role of trace elements and compounds; Biological Trace Element Research 103(1), p. 1-15; 2005

[2] J.M. Prospero, E. Blades, G. Mathison, R. Naidu; Interhemispheric transport of viable fungi and bacteria from Africa to the Caribbean with soil dust; Aerobiologia 21, p. 1–19, Springer; 2005

[3] B. Fubinia, C. Otero Aréan; Chemical aspects of the toxicity of inhaled mineral dusts; Chemical Society Reviews 28, p. 373–381; 1999

[4] G.S. Plumlee, S.A. Morman, T.L. Ziegler; The Toxicological Geochemistry of Earth Materials: An Overview of Processes and the Interdisciplinary Methods Used to Understand Them; Reviews in Mineralogy & Geochemistry 64, p. 5-57; 2006

[5] T.N. Kirkland, J. Fierer; Coccidioidomycosis: A Reemerging Infectious Disease; Emerging Infectious Diseases 3(2); 1996

[6] C.S. Zender, J. Talamantes; Climate controls on valley fever incidence in Kern County, California; International Journal of Biometeorology 50(3), p. 174–182; 2005

[7] D.W. Griffin; Atmospheric Movement of Microorganisms in Clouds of Desert Dust and Implications for Human Health; Clinical Microbiology reviews 20(3), p. 459–477; 2007

[8] P. Yaka, B. Sultan, H. Broutin, S. Janicot, S. Philippon, N. Fourquet; Relationships between climate and year-to-year variability in meningitis outbreaks: A case study in Burkina Faso and Niger; International Journal of Health Geographics 7(34); 2008

[9] M.C. Thomson, A.M. Molesworth, M.H. Djingarey, K.R. Yameogo, F. Belanger, L.E. Cuevas; Potential of environmental models to predict meningitis epidemics in Africa; Tropical Medicine and International Health 11(6), p.781–788; 2006


Publication list in alphabetical order (including publications from above):

bibliography-health [pdf, 46 kB]





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