The Dust Bowl in the 1930s was one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century. Intense dust storms relentlessly pounded the southern Great Plains of the United States, wreaking severe ecological damage, forcing 2.5 million people to leave the region and claiming unnumbered lives, mainly from “dust pneumonia.”
Research has shown that this disaster was fueled by a combination of severe droughts and over-cultivated lands. Today, climate change driven by human actions is enhancing the occurrence of droughts in multiple regions around the world.
As researchers working at the intersection of environmental health, air pollution and climate change, we wanted to know how increasing drought conditions and population growth in the U.S. Southwest could affect airborne dust levels and public health.
In a recently published study, we estimate that if the world stays on its current greenhouse gas emissions path, rising fine dust levels could increase premature deaths by 130 percent and triple hospitalizations due to fine dust exposure in this region.
Harmful Effects of Inhaling Dust
If global greenhouse gas emissions are not sharply reduced, scientists project that the U.S. Southwest – already the nation’s hottest and driest region – will experience unprecedented multi-decade “mega-droughts” in the coming decades.
It is now well understood that short- and long-term exposures to airborne particles, including dust, pose major health risks. Effects range from increased hospital admissions to higher risk of premature death, primarily due to cardiovascular and respiratory disorders.
In our study, “dust” refers to soil-derived airborne particles generated by wind erosion or human activities, such as farming operations or travel on unpaved roads. Any soil particles smaller than 0.05 millimeters – roughly the width of a human hair – can be uplifted into the air. We focused on particles smaller than 0.0025 millimeters (2.5 microns), which are…