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22nd Sep 2019

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Dust storms can make Cyprus unbearable for asthmatics

The image of a lone polar bear coping with shrinking ice caps is perhaps the most obvious, if cliched, example of a victim of climate change.

Most people probably realise that humans are at risk too, although it can be difficult to conceptualise how global warming can make current life more difficult.

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One concrete recent realisation is that increased temperatures can have indirect effects that lead to a real danger to asthmatics in some of Europe's most southern regions.

The main culprit: desert dust storms.

Sand particles from the Sahara are lifted up in the high atmosphere and transported north.

"At first these episodes were considered to be harmless," professor Panayiotis Yiallouros at the University of Cyprus told EUobserver in an interview.

"But there is accumulating data from epidemiological studies from many areas of the world that this is not the case," he added.

One reason is that the particles do not only contain sand, but during their trip absorb man-made pollutants, toxicants, and biological molecules like spores and funghi and bacteria.

Yiallouros coordinates an EU-funded programme that is trying to come up with a strategy to help reduce the health impact of desert dust storms.

He said the storms are increasing in frequency and intensity in the eastern Mediterranean, notably in Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete – as well as in Israel.

"This is a field that is relatively new. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years that it has been realised that the dust from the desert is harmful for human health," he added.

The scientific community now has "solid evidence" that short-term exposure to the particles from the dust storms are related to a higher number of deaths and more frequent hospital admissions.

"There are reports for increased emergency visits or unscheduled visits to health professionals, and increased hospital admissions from asthma during those days," said Yiallouros.

"It is not just asthma, it is a range of respiratory conditions and cardiovascular conditions that are implicated in this," he added.

Asthma in Europe

According to a European Commission database, 4.3 percent of the population in Cyprus were affected by asthma in 2014 – the EU average was 5.9 percent.

It is unclear whether the figures are increasing or decreasing, because the European Core Health Indicators database only has figures for 2014. A commission spokeswoman said that the survey feeding the data is held every five years.

The 2014 Global Asthma Report also noted that there are many gaps in statistics about the disease of the airways. Estimates range between 235 million and 334 million humans worldwide suffering from asthma.

According to the World Health Organisation, asthma has become less fatal in the European Union.

There were 1.32 asthma-related deaths per 100,000 citizens of the EU in 2004. In 2012, the most recent figure, there were 0.76.

But the steady decline in asthma deaths could rise again, if the desert dust storms and other causes like air pollution increase.

"In Cyprus we had demonstrated that there has been a significant increase in the last years in the frequency and severity of the episodes," said Yiallouros.

"Ten years ago 10 percent of the days of the year were dust storm days," he said, referring to the most recent data set.

"We think that this has increased further. We are now doing our follow-up study.... We think it is going to be even higher."

He noted that in particular the combination of dust storms with a higher temperature will lead to Cyprus and Crete becoming "a very adverse environment for asthmatics, but also for vulnerable people in general".

Yiallouros' €3.3m project – of which the EU is contributing €1.9m – aims at coming up with a strategy to reduce the health impact of the storms.

Of course the best strategy would be to reverse global warming, but that will require a societal revolution that will take years.

"The projection is that for the immediate future the global warming and perhaps the dust storms are going to continue to increase. We need to do something now," said Yiallouros.

"The best possible strategy is to adapt to these new phenomena, try to reduce the exposure of the population especially the most vulnerable groups, and [try to] manage to reduce the health effects."

The plan is to improve predictions of when a dust storm is coming and then informing vulnerable people via a smartphone application. That app would give recommendations on what to do.

At the same time, the app with remote sensors given to the test subjects, will measure health signs to see if the recommendations are working.

"Once we demonstrate their effectiveness, we are going to try and replicate this into strategies that can be transferred into wider groups of our communities but also in other European countries that are facing the same difficulties," he said.

The programme will run until 31 August 2021.

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