NEWS

Saharan dust may create pretty sunsets. But they also trigger breathing issues for those with respiratory conditions

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

It gets swept from dry African landscapes, caught up in trade winds and cast across the Atlantic Ocean in tons.

Saharan Desert dust blasted over Florida late last month, and chances are there will be more waves of the tiny particulates this summer as this is the season for African dust storms. 

Known for dampening the chance of tropical storm and hurricane formation, Saharan dust also creates incredible aerial landscapes of salmon and lavender hues. 

A black skimmer feeds in the waters off of Fort Myers Beach at sunset on Saturday July, 25, 2020. The birds are acrobatic as they quickly move across the surface of the water with their bills in the water. Once they feel a prey item, they snap their bills shut on the meal. Sahara dust can be an irritant but often leads to beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

But it can also create a health hazard for people with respiratory issues like asthma. 

"What happens is the Sahara Desert sends small particles that can get in the lungs of people with allergies and asthma," said Jose Arias, an allergy specialist who works in small towns west of Orlando. "You're going to have a little tickle in the throat of a person with asthma." 

Arias, a representative of the American Lung Association, said he sees patients who are suffering from reactions to the dust but that they don't realize the cause of their irritation. 

Previously:Saharan dust storms, more frequent and more intense, headed to Florida

Photos:Storms, Saharan dust created sunrises, sunsets along Treasure Coast

"They're not really aware because I think they're not making the connection," Arias said. "We're having people come in with asthma and they're still on their medicines and I think it's the irritation from the sand." 

Arias said some COVID precautions will actually help people with breathing issues better deal with the desert dust. 

Images from sunset at Bunche Beach Preserve on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. A layer of Saharan dust has made its way to the U.S. including Southwest Florida. Particles in the air make for stunning sunsets.

"What I'm recommending to patients is to keep the windows closed even if it feels nice, and wear a mask to protect your airways when you go outside," Arias said. "That will help you with COVID and will help some of this sand from getting in your lungs." 

So if you're feeling an itchy throat and the skies are beautiful in the morning and night, it could be the dust. 

"It effects a lot people," Arias said. "For that to be able to come across the ocean, it has to be small and light in size and that's how it gets into your lungs." 

The Center for Disease Control sent a statement to The News-Press regarding Saharan Desert dust. 

"The suspended particulate matter can irritate bronchial passages and lungs. In addition to causing cough and wheezing, dust can make chronic respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) worse, and increase the risk for respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia," the email reads. "It is important that people with asthma and other chronic lung diseases take precautions to maintain control of their underlying conditions, limit outdoor exposure during dust storms, and reduce dust exposure in the home." 

By the way:La Niña climate pattern to return this fall and last through winter. Here's what to expect.

These dusting events typically happen in the summer as that's when the desert is at its driest. 

"Typically we see it a couple of times a year," said Stephen Shiveley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "Sometimes we get a little dust over us and no one would even notice and sometimes we get those gorgeous sunsets and sunrises."

It also impacts weather across the Atlantic Ocean, making the air less humid. 

"We get it seemingly every year and usually for us the only thing it will do is it can suppress the development of tropical activity because it's dry and interferes with that whole process," said Nicole Carlisle, an NWS meteorologist who also works out of Ruskin. 

There are no dust storms in the immediate forecast, but Shiveley said he expects to see more this summer. 

"It all depends on Africa," Shiveley said. "If they get a dry season and if the trade winds are strong enough to bring it over here. We'll see a couple of more episodes of it because Africa has dried up." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.