The UAE often faces sandstorms that can reduce air quality and hamper visibility on the roads.
The National Centre of Meteorology issued a warning that such dust and sand storms would sweep through the Emirates this week.
The Plume air quality app, which monitors cities around the world, said that could cause “high” levels of pollution.
It said babies and people who were sensitive should remain indoors.
Plume occasionally records “airpocalyptic” levels of pollution in the UAE, which means everyone is subject to immediate and heavy effects from exposure. That happened most recently last week.
As the summer approaches, sandstorms are likely to become more regular. But why? And why do they potentially pose a risk to public health?
How common are sandstorms?
In the UAE, sandstorms are certainly not unusual. They most often hit during the summer and turbulent weather, such as during the transition from winter to spring, when rising temperatures cause strong winds. The rate of storms is expected to increase with the effects of climate change, a report published in 2017 found.
More extreme sandstorms are usually reported elsewhere in the region, in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, where there are strong north-westerly winds.
During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide – all pollutants released by vehicles – dropped, in some cases by as much as 70 per cent.
But a recent study in the Emirates found the air was more polluted owing to an increase in concentrations of tiny particulate matter in the air in the east of the Arabian Peninsula, including the UAE.
That resulted from an unusually active period of dust storms caused by north-westerly winds.
What are sandstorms made of?
A lot more than sand. The storms can carry pollutants or even viruses and bacteria.
“You could have a sandstorm here and the impact on what is carried on the sand or in the sand is completely different,” Ruqaya Mohamed, section manager of air quality, noise and climate change at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, told The National.
“The sandstorm could have the same origin, but depending on where it passes, by the time it reaches your place or my place it carries all sorts of things along the way,” she said.
Sandstorms typically contain silica crystals, as well as viruses, bacteria, dust mites, funghi and even plants. They have been blamed for spreading meningitis spores across Africa. The storms can also transmit viruses such as influenza, scientists have said.
Some experts have said the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK was caused by a large storm in North Africa, which may have carried the spores to the north of the UK a week before the first cases were reported.
Who is at risk of becoming ill?
The American Thoracic Society has said sand particles can be inhaled, but are usually too large to be deposited in the lungs, so they generally become trapped in the upper airway.
As a result, upper airway and mucus membrane irritation is the most common health problem.
People who suffer from allergies or asthma suffer most. Fifteen minutes of exposure to even small particles can increase the potential of suffering from asthma symptoms.
But anyone with a weakened immune system, including the elderly and pregnant women, are more at risk of being infected by viruses or bacteria contained in the dust.
What should I do in a sandstorm?
If you can, you should stay indoors until it passes. If not, wear a mask or use a wet towel to protect yourself against inhaling dust particles.
Running an air purifier indoors will help. Doctors say it is also important to stay hydrated.
Why don’t UAE sandstorms look like the ones on TV?
The UAE’s location and climate does not tend to expose it to the extreme winds found elsewhere.
Forecasters say most of the storms that reach the country originate from the dries-up marshlands of Kuwait or Iraq, but they usually blow themselves out before they reach the Emirates.
Instead of a fast-moving wall of air, as seen in Dubai in Hollywood film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the sand is suspended.
Can anything be done to improve air quality in the UAE?
Abu Dhabi has expanded a programme aimed at improving air quality in the emirate.
Experts from the environment agency have joined the World Health Organisation’s Global Air Pollution and Health Technical Advisory Group. They now sit on two working groups – one focused on dust, sand and health, and the other on policy interventions.
It is hoped the knowledge gained in the groups can help the emirate to continue to make strides to improve air quality.