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Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center

Sources, compositions, and effects of atmospheric dust from American Drylands

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Evaluate the effects of dust on human health

Contemporary dust emission within North America is important for its effects on human health. Dust from dry landscapes in the American West commonly moves into heavily populated areas and protected airsheds, raising concerns about air quality and human health.

Concerns about human health center primarily on the sizes of dust particles. Very small particles can be deeply respired into the lungs and remain there. Small size alone is a major health risk for lung disease and the health on the cardiovascular system. For these reasons, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors air quality in population centers according to guidelines established from decades of study. Guidelines exist now for concentrations of PM10 and PM2.5 in air. PM refers to particulate matter (dust particles) and the numbers 10 and 2.5 refer to the aerodynamic diameter in micrometers for these particles. Particles having smaller size are more likely than larger particles to be respired and not expelled.

Other dust-related, human-health concerns include airborne transmission of pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and fungus) and the compositions of certain hazardous dust particles.

Some minerals in dust are extremely hazardous, such as certain asbestiform minerals, because of their ability to lodge in lung tissue and promote disease such as mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. Other minerals may contain potentially toxic elements, such as certain heavy metals.

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