High winds carrying dust across the Borderland is a common occurrence in the Chihuahua Desert. But what some might pass off as a temporary inconvenience could have long-term health consequences, a recent study found.
A journal article published in “atmosphere” found a correlation between dust events and increased hospital admissions in El Paso. The number of patients admitted to hospitals increased from the day of a dust event to up to one week later. Increased hospital admissions after dust events were documented for conditions including coronary artery disease and Valley fever.
Estrella Herrera-Molina, who recently completed a PhD in Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UTEP, is the article’s lead author. Thomas Gill and Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia of UTEP and Soyoung Jeon of New Mexico State University are coauthors.
The authors encourage individuals, public agencies and employers, especially of outdoor workers, to heed air pollution and dust warnings to mitigate health risks. Dust events are on the rise in the Southwest, a trend that experts expect to continue as the climate changes.
Public health research is personal for Herrera-Molina
Born in Parral, Chihuahua, Herrera-Molina’s family moved to Juárez when she was a child. She immediately noticed the powerful dust storms that would envelop the city, where many roads are unpaved.
After undergrad at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua, Herrera-Molina completed her master’s degree at UTEP. While dust storms are commonplace in the desert, Herrera-Molina saw a gap in scientific understanding of their impact when it came time to begin her PhD research.
“There are many studies of the impacts of air pollution from anthropogenic (human) sources,” Herrera-Molina said. “But there are few studies on the impacts of the natural air pollution.”
Herrera-Molina wondered if health problems among her family members could be linked to the region’s high levels of air pollution.
In the El Paso-Juárez area, dust is one of the main sources of PM10, fine particulate matter that enters the lungs and bloodstream according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). PM10 levels in the region are frequently above levels recommended by the EPA.
Hospitalizations for a range of conditions follow dust storms
The researchers collected data from 2010 to 2014, finding that El Paso residents were exposed to dust events an average of 15 times a year. Each event lasted about two hours.
The researchers obtained hospitalization data from the Texas Department of State Health Services and used a regression model to determine the association between the dust and wind data and hospital admissions. They found a statistically significant increase in hospitalizations for numerous conditions from the day of the dust event to a week later.
Valley fever, a respiratory infection caused by a fungus found in dust, topped the list. While there were few hospitalizations overall for Valley fever, the rate increased significantly after dust events. While the state of Texas does not track the condition, case rates are on the rise in Arizona, New Mexico and California.
Symptoms of Valley fever usually appear at least one week after exposure, but the authors speculate that exposure to increased wind could cause fast development of symptoms, or exacerbate an infection that previously had not been detected.
Dust events also were linked to hospital admissions for coronary atherosclerosis, or coronary artery disease. Other studies have found that even just a few hours of exposure to PM can cause trigger cardiovascular problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that exposure to air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks and coronary artery disease.
“The immune system tries to engulf the particle,” Herrera-Molina said. “If there is already plaque in your veins and then these particles come into your veins it exacerbates the problem.”
Other correlations in the data were more surprising, like the increase in hospital admissions for births following dust events. Other scientific studies have found links between air pollution and premature births and low birth weight.
“It’s important to inform (expecting) moms not to be exposed to these dust events because it could affect your baby,” said Herrera-Molina. “One, two, three weeks before your delivery date, it can affect your due date.”
A 2011 study by UTEP researchers found that dust and wind events in El Paso were associated with increased odds of hospitalization for asthma and bronchitis among all ages. Rates were even higher for children, especially girls. The study found that adults on Medicaid or without health insurance had higher risks of hospitalization for asthma and acute bronchitis after dust events.
Protect yourself from dust and air pollution
Herrera-Molina said the next steps of research are to understand how age, gender, health insurance status and other factors impact risk.
She said researching dust events has informed her own habits.
“I changed the windows and the doors at my house. Because I realized I could get a lot of dust inside the house,” she said. “My kid has asthma, my husband has circulatory problems. I don’t want them to get sick.”