Sahara dust in Europe: a natural spectacle with health implications

When Sahara sand is blown toward us, we initially perceive it as an interesting visual spectacle: the sky turns yellowish, and the atmosphere outside is reminiscent of warm Christmas lights. As soon as the sand settles as a fine layer of dust on cars, garden furniture and window sills, we are usually less enthusiastic…

We have repeatably dealt with the topic of “fine dust” and shown that this type of air pollution has particular health effects. Fine dust is not homogeneous but is made up of different particles, e.g. brake abrasion from car tyres, soot particles or dust from agriculture or construction sites. The composition of fine dust varies regionally, seasonally and depending on the weather.

On days with Sahara sand in the air, the proportion of atmospheric mineral dust in the composition increases. Atmospheric mineral dust originates mainly in deserts, with about half of it originating from the Sahara worldwide.

Scientific studies show that the health effects increase on days with mineral dust concentrations: on the one hand, because the overall fine dust load is higher – with the known effects on health. On the other hand, it has also been proven that mineral dust pollution poses special risks:

Studies have shown that the health effects of fine dust are increased when Saharan dust is present: The respiratory tract in particular, but also the cardiovascular system, are then more stressed. The particle size also plays a role. Larger particles are not inhaled, but irritate the skin and can lead to problems – even allergies.

It is also assumed that the risk of infection increases. Two causes are held responsible for this: Inhaling the Sahara dust can irritate or damage the protective mucosae, making one more susceptible to bacterial infections. In addition, microbial populations and anthropological pollutants attach themselves to the dust particles and are thus dispersed and spread – a transmission route for infectious diseases.

Saharan dust in the air is thus more than a natural spectacle. At-risk groups should try to minimise their exposure to this additional burden.