Sandstorms have engulfed the Middle East in recent days, in a phenomenon that experts say could proliferate due to climate change, seriously endangering human health.
At least 4,000 people were hospitalized on Monday for respiratory problems in Iraq, where eight sandstorms have battered the country since mid-April.
This is in addition to more than 5,000 people being treated in Iraqi hospitals for similar respiratory conditions earlier this month.
The phenomenon has also suffocated Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more fears in the days to come.
Strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust into the atmosphere, which can then travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers (miles).
The sandstorms affected a total of 150 countries and regions, negatively impacting the environment, health and economy, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.
“It’s both a local and a global phenomenon, with greater intensity in the areas of origin,” said Carlos Perez Garcia-Pando, an expert in sand and dust storms at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies.
The storms come from dry or semi-dry regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China.
Other less affected regions include Australia, the Americas and South Africa.
The UN agency WMO has warned of the “serious risks” posed by airborne dust.
Fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular disease, and also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.
“Dust particle size is a key determinant of potential hazard to human health,” the WMO said.
Small particles that can be less than 10 micrometers can often become trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract and therefore are associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma and pneumonia.
Those most at risk are the oldest and youngest as well as those with respiratory and heart problems.
And the most affected are the inhabitants of countries regularly beaten by sandstorms, unlike Europe where dust from the Sahara is rare, like the incident in March.
Depending on weather and climate conditions, sand dust can remain in the atmosphere for several days and travel great distances, sometimes picking up bacteria, pollen, fungi and viruses.
“However, the gravity is less than with ultrafine particles, for example from road traffic, which can penetrate the brain or the blood system”, explains Thomas Bourdrel, radiologist, researcher at the University of Strasbourg and member of the collective Air Health Climate. .
Even if the sand particles are less toxic than the particles produced by combustion, their “extreme density during storms leads to a fairly significant increase in cardio-respiratory mortality, especially among the most vulnerable,” he said.
With “a concentration of thousands of cubic micrometers in the air, it’s almost unbreathable,” Garcia-Pando said.
The frequency and intensity of sandstorms could worsen due to climate change, some scientists say.
But the complex phenomenon is “full of uncertainties” and is affected by a cocktail of factors like heat, wind and agricultural practices, Garcia-Pando told AFP.
“In some regions, climate change may reduce the winds that cause storms, but extreme events may persist or even increase,” he said.
With rising global temperatures, it is very likely that more and more parts of the Earth will become drier.
“This year, a large temperature anomaly has been observed in East Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and this drought is affecting plants, a factor that can increase sandstorms,” said said the Spanish researcher.
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