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Incredible But True: Sahara Dust Can Bring Not Just Haze But Also Disease

01/04/2014 14:43 BST | Updated 01/06/2014 10:59 BST

Huge clouds of Saharan dust arriving in the UK may not only make the place hazy or smoggy but it could also bring upper respiratory tract infections such as asthma, runny noses, itchy eyes, and breathing difficulties. It is not the actual dust that impacts the health of humans but the bacterial and fungal spores which travel with dust clouds.

While Saharan dust clouds may be a novelty in the UK, it has been a way of life in the Caribbean for decades and credited with bringing infections to humans, diseases to marine life, reduced rainfall and suppressed storm formation.

Thin layers of Sahara dust have been reported as arriving in areas from Cornwall to London over the last few days.

Edmund Blades a researcher in Barbados had been researching the link between these dust clouds and asthma.

Daily he collects samples from a dust monitoring station, takes them to his lab at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, just outside the capital city, to develop cultures in order to identify the types of bacteria and fungi which hitch a ride on the dust clouds. He then examines the impact that these can have on human health.

Barbados, which is the first landfall in the Caribbean for the clouds leaving Africa, has been the site for the University of Miami's dust monitoring station since 1965.

"The largest group is mycelia sterilia or sterile fungus which we are unable to identify. The next largest group comprises several species of Aspergillus," he told me during his research.

His research was so fine-tuned that he is able to identify the specific areas in Africa where the dust originated. It's all in the identification of the types of bacteria and fungi that arrive.

Cuba has been far ahead in research. There's been a joint research project by the Satellite department at the Forecast Center of the Cuban Institute of Meteorology and the Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology from the Public Health Ministry (MINSAP), to establish links with respiratory diseases and bronchial asthma.

Based on forecast, pharmacies know what type of over the counter medication to stock each summer.

Humans are not the only casualties of Sahara dust but also coral reefs.

A Barbadian marine biologist, Angelique Brathwaite, studying coral reef disease and death in Barbados was able to identify the spores travelling on the dust clouds as the culprits.

Other scientists writing in American Geophysical Union journal also found the dust to be responsible for diseased sea fans.

But the scary thing is that these dust clouds bring more than bacterial and fungi spores according to the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center in the USA. They also found chemical contaminants such as pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Some of these are banned and outdated.

Hurricanes and rainfall also fall prey to the Saharan dust layer according to the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. They discovered that these clouds suppress rainfall and hurricane formation. There are now satellites which can track and forecast the movement of dust clouds across the Atlantic.

So when the next layer of Saharan dust falls on the UK, it might well be bringing more than reduced visibility.