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African dust storms in our air

20 September 2013

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You might find it hard to believe that dust clouds from the African Sahara can travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, but it does every year and in large quantities. In a recent study, Joseph Prospero, professor emeritus at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and collaborators at the University of Houston and Arizona State University found that the average air concentrations of inhalable particles more than doubled during a major Saharan dust intrusion in Houston, Texas.

The researchers were able to distinguish between particles transported across the Atlantic and those from local sources in the Houston region. In this way they established the "fingerprint" of the African dust. To their knowledge, this is the first study that isolates, differentiates, and quantifies the air contaminants in the US during the incursion of African dust. There is a concern that the fine airborne dust particles could be a health problem for asthmatics and people with respiratory problems.

"Current EPA air quality standards are based on the total amount of particles that are in the air," Prospero says. "Our study will contribute to our ability to discriminate and identify the dominant components in the air during long-range transport events," he says. "Our hope is that our work is instrumental in assisting regulatory agencies respond to health and environmental issues linked to African dust."

Source: Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science