Airborne Dust Particles

Hazards Of Airborne Dust Particles – Author: Stephen Girts (Teach the Earth)

“Any type of earth-moving activity or combustion can produce excessive amounts of particles in the air, whether it be from businesses, industry, or individuals.

Examples of the types of dust found in the work environment include:

  • mineral dusts, such as those containing free crystalline silica (e.g., as quartz), coal and cement dusts;
  • metallic dusts, such as lead, cadmium, nickel, and beryllium dusts;
  • other chemical dusts, e.g., many bulk chemicals and pesticides:
  • organic and vegetable dusts, such as flour, wood, cotton and tea dusts, pollens;
  • biohazards, such as viable particles, moulds and spores

Dusts are generated not only by work processes, but may also occur naturally, e.g., pollens, volcanic ashes, and sandstorms.

Sources: Where Does It Come From
Airborne Dust Particles can come from pretty much anywhere, any movement or activity can cause a large amount of excess particles in the air.

  • Disturbed vacant or open lands
  • Construction and mining activity
  • Landscaping maintenance activity
  • Industrial sources
  • Fires: fireplace, camp, forest
  • – Charcoal or wood-burning barbecues – Off-road vehicle activity
    – Unpaved and paved roads, parking lots – Diesel exhaust

How Airborne Dust Particles Travel The Earth
Airborne Dust Particles can travel through various sources such as soil being lifted up by weather (an Aeolian process), volcanic eruptions, and pollution. Dust comes from arid and dry regions where high velocity winds are able to remove mostly silt-sized material. This includes ares where grazing, ploughing, vehicle use and other human activities have furthered the destabilized the land. Dust in the atmosphere is produced by saltation and sandblasting of sand-sized grains, and it is transported through the troposphere. The airborne dust is considered an aerosol and once in the atmosphere, it can produce strong local radiative forcing.

Airborne Dust Particles contaminates the biosphere through inhalation by humans and animals, and can also effect crops growing in an area with large amounts of dust particles. When inhaled, the fibers are deposited in air passages and on lung cells.

Impacts On Human Health
Particles can be so small that they pass through the nasal passage and travel to the deepest parts of the lungs and cause damage. To compound the problem, toxic and cancer-causing chemicals can attach themselves to PM yielding much more profound effects. The tiniest of particles can even pass into the bloodstream through the lungs. People most at risk from breathing particle pollution are children, the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart disease. Healthy people can be affected as well, especially outdoor exercisers. Effects of breathing PM for hours, days, or years include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Respiratory pain
  • Diminished lung function
  • Weakened immune systems
  • Increased hospitalization
  • pneumonia, asthma, and emphysema – Heart attacks and strokes
    – Premature death (1-8 years)”

Dust Storm - Airborne dust particles

Airborne Dust: A Hazard to Human Health, Environment and Society
Author: By Enric Terradellas, Slobodan Nickovic and Xiao-Ye Zhang – World Meteorological Organisation

“Over the last decade, the scientific community has come to realize the important impacts of airborne dust on climate, human health, the environment and various socio-economic sectors. WMO and its Members, having started implementation of monitoring, forecasting and early warning systems for airborne dust in 2004, are at the vanguard on evaluating these impacts and developing products to guide preparedness, adaptation and mitigation policies.

This article will first provide an overview of the dust cycle and discuss its interaction with weather, the climate system, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems, before looking at its impacts on health and diverse economic sectors. It will then highlight the international network coordinated by WMO and its ambitious plan for providing policy-oriented products. The intent is to raise awareness in National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) on the extent of the adverse impacts of airborne dust and to inform readers of WMO efforts to understand these better. The article highlights the WMO initiative to provide operational services that can facilitate dust forecasting and early warning in order to invite other interested organisations to actively participate in this important work.

The dust cycle
Dust storms are common meteorological hazard in arid and semi-arid regions. They are usually caused by thunderstorms, or strong pressure gradients associated with cyclones, that increase wind speed over a wide area.

These strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere, transporting them hundreds to thousands of kilometres away.

Gravity keeps dust pinned down on the Earth surface. The heavier a dust particle – due to size, density or the presence of water in the soil – the stronger the gravitational force holding it down. A dust storm can only occur when the wind force exceeds the threshold value for the loose particles to be lifted off the ground. Vegetation serves as a cover, protecting the Earth surface from this wind (Aeolian) erosion. Thus, drought contributes to the emergence of dust storms, as do poor farming and grazing practices or inadequate water management, by exposing the dust and sand to the wind.

Some 40% of aerosols in the troposphere (the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere) are dust particles from wind erosion. The main sources of these mineral dusts are the arid regions of Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China. Comparatively, Australia, America and South Africa make minor, but still important, contributions. Global estimates of dust emissions, mainly derived from simulation models, vary between one and three Gigatons per year.

Once released from the surface, dust particles are raised to higher levels of the troposphere by turbulent mixing and convective updrafts. They are then transported by winds for lengths of time, depending on their size and meteorological conditions. Gravitation remains the major force pulling dust particles back down to the surface. Together with impaction and turbulent diffusion, it contributes to what is called dry deposition. As larger particles sediment more quickly than smaller ones, there is a shift toward smaller particle sizes during transport. Dust is also washed out of the atmosphere by precipitation – wet deposition. The average lifetime of dust particles in the atmosphere ranges from a few hours for particles with a diameter larger than 10 μm, to more than 10 days for the sub-micrometric ones.

Interaction with weather and climate
Aerosols, particularly mineral dusts, impact weather as well as global and regional climate.4 Dust particles, especially if coated by pollution, act as condensation nuclei for warm cloud formation and as efficient ice nuclei agents for cold cloud generation. The ability of dust particles to serve as such depends on their size, shape and composition, which in turn depend on the nature of parent soils, emissions and transport processes. Modification of the microphysical composition of clouds changes their ability to absorb solar radiation, which indirectly affects the energy reaching the Earth’s surface.5 Dust particles also influence the growth of cloud droplets and ice crystals, thus affecting the amount and location of precipitation.

Airborne dust functions in a manner similar to the greenhouse effect: it absorbs and scatters solar radiation entering Earth’s atmosphere, reducing the amount reaching the surface, and absorbs long-wave radiation bouncing back up from the surface, re-emitting it in all directions. Again, the ability of dust particles to absorb solar radiation depends on their size, shape and mineralogical and chemical composition. The vertical distribution of dust in the air (vertical profile) and the characteristics of the underlying surface are also required to quantify this impact.

Impacts on human health
Airborne dust presents serious risks for human health. Dust particle size is a key determinant of potential hazard to human health. Particles larger than 10 μm are not breathable, thus can only damage external organs – mostly causing skin and eye irritations, conjunctivitis and enhanced susceptibility to ocular infection. Inhalable particles, those smaller than 10 μm, often get trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, thus can be associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma, tracheitis, pneumonia, allergic rhinitis and silicosis. However, finer particles may penetrate the lower respiratory tract and enter the bloodstream, where they can affect all internal organs and be responsible for cardiovascular disorders. A global model assessment in 2014 estimated that exposure to dust particles caused about 400 000 premature deaths by cardiopulmonary disease in the over 30 population.6

Some infectious diseases can be transmitted by dust. Meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the thin tissue layer that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, can result in brain damage and, if untreated, death in 50% of cases.7 Outbreaks occur worldwide, yet the highest incidence is found in the “meningitis belt”, a part of sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated population of 300 million. These outbreaks have a strong seasonal pattern – many studies have linked environmental conditions, such as low humidity and dusty conditions, to the time and place of infections.8 Researchers believe that the inhalation of dust particles in hot dry weather may damage nose and throat mucosa creating favourable conditions for bacterial infection.9 Moreover, iron oxides embedded in dust particles may enhance the risk of infection.10

Dust also plays a role in the transmission of valley fever – a potentially deadly disease – in the Southwest of the United States and in the Northern Mexico by acting as a transporter of Coccidioides fungi spores.

Impacts on the environment and society
Surface dust deposits are a source of micro-nutrients for both continental and maritime ecosystems. Saharan dust is thought to fertilize the Amazon rainforest, and dust transports of iron and phosphorus are know to benefit marine biomass production in parts of the oceans suffering from the shortage of such elements.11 But dust also has many negative impacts on agriculture, including reducing crop yields by burying seedlings, causing loss of plant tissue, reducing photosynthetic activity and increasing soil erosion.

Indirect dust deposit impacts include filling irrigation canals, covering transportation routes and affecting river and stream water quality. Reductions in visibility due to airborne dust also have an impact on air and land transport. Poor visibility conditions are a danger during aircraft landing and taking off – landings may be diverted and departures delayed. Dust can also scour aircraft surfaces and damage engines.

Dust can impact on the output of solar power plants, especially those that rely on direct solar radiation. Dust deposits on solar panels are a main concern of plants operators. Keeping the solar collectors dust-free to prevent particles from blocking incoming radiation requires time and labour.”

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Have a good day! Chris Loans

Dust Monitoring Equipment – providing equipment, services and training in dust fallout management to the mining industry.

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