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Study: Rising Health Impacts from Dust Expected from Climate Change

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018   

DENVER - As firefighters work to contain the 416, Mailbox and Burro wildfires, Coloradans can see the results of increased particulates in the air, especially around sunrise and sunset.

Scientists have long warned about the health risks associated with particulate pollution, and laws such as the Clean Air Act have helped reduce emissions from industrial sources and cars. Loretta Mickley, a senior research fellow at Harvard University's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said her team has uncovered another major threat to air quality in southwestern states.

"The U.S. has done tremendous work to clean the air, to make our air breathable and safe," she said, "but climate change could come along and throw a monkey wrench in that effort by increasing dust."

If climate pollution isn't sharply reduced, Mickley said, states including Colorado could experience unprecedented "mega droughts" in coming decades. She explained that without enough rainfall and as temperatures rise, more soil dries out and smaller particles end up airborne. Researchers have predicted that could lead to a 130-percent increase in premature deaths associated with dust, and triple the number of hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory disorders.

Mickley added that more dust in the air carries other health risks, including Valley Fever, which is caused by a fungus that thrives in dry soils and can be fatal. If the world stays on its current emissions path, she said, the public health impacts of dust could be significant.

"The increased number of people dying every year in our worst-case scenario due to dust is about equivalent to a little less than the number of people who die every year in car crashes," she said.

Researchers have projected in the "best-case" scenario, where global warming is held below two degrees Celsius, rising fine dust levels could increase premature deaths by 20 percent, and hospital admissions by 60 percent.

The report is online at iopscience.iop.org.


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