Dangers from dust

beijingchina.jpgLast night’s Barbados TODAY Editorial on dust, its dangers and possible sources, once more raised questions which were asked and not answered in 2011 by this column; similar questions were raised about who pays the cost of rehabilitative treatment and medicine for the sufferers of air pollution caused by the construction industry?

The question presented in 2011 queried whether there was a direct correlation between how dust as a product of construction; meaning dust from new road development, road repairs, buildings and residential development, and servicing underground utilities, negatively affected the quality of air experienced by a typical resident.

The answer according to varying authorities on the subject was unfortunately, a resounding yes. Furthermore, medical practitioners also noted that allergy complaints, asthma and other related respiratory disorders were on the increase as part of their patient load. These same practitioners also noted that in their opinion, there appeared to be an increase in the dust pollution complaints especially from residential communities who were located near building development areas or road construction.

In 2009, the European Union Environmental Agency had estimated that air pollution costs exceeded US $227 billion. An unofficial estimate in 2012 suggests that this amount for Europe may have already reached US $230 billion; all directly related to Europe’s biggest polluting industries.

To extrapolate, this staggering sum to the Caribbean, and more specifically Barbados in 2013, this US $227 billion bill breaks down to US$56,049 per person per year, or US$154.00 per person per day. In Barbados currency, the amount is even more dramatic at a daily cost to each person of BDS$308. This figure if applied to a family earning BDS $900 per week, would immediately force every national in Barbados into permanent poverty.

Dust in the airstream poses a serious health threat to children, older people, and those with respiratory illnesses. The amount of pollutants in the air has surpassed more than 50 times the internationally regulated normal level several times in the last two decades, with residents in cities such as Singapore, Indonesia, Los Angeles, and Beijing, being warned when to stay indoors based on the air quality on a particular day.

In April, dust from a solar project being built in the desert portion of Los Angeles County may actually have caused significant liability problems, including personal injury; the project was halted by county officials in the wake of powerful dust storms that caused multi-car pileups.

In the parishes of St. Philip, St. George, St. Michael and St. Thomas, residents go through a daily ritual of cleaning furniture, fittings, fixtures and bed linen, due to the high volume of dust accumulating throughout their homes. The dust is everywhere; even settling on glassware and cooking utensils. Bed linen is constantly being changed as the settling dust on pillows aggravates sinuses, creating nights of sneezing, wheezing and coughing. All fittings and Furnishings now present a thin layer of white, as they are coated by the same particulate making the household sneeze and wheeze.

Floors are constantly mopped to remove the dust; and closing all windows and doors only serves to increase the internal heat of the home. It also settles on the food consumed, as vehicles travelling through neighbourhoods, constantly agitate the roadside dust that invades the household on a daily basis. House dust can become airborne easily.

It is recommended that care should therefore be exercised when removing dust to avoid causing the dust to become airborne. The use of a feather duster should be carefully considered as feather dusters tend to further agitate the particulate so that it lands elsewhere but not out of the house.

Let us take a closer look at dust and what it contains. Dust consists of particles in the atmosphere that originate from varying sources such as soil dust lifted by weather (airborne particulate), volcanic eruptions, and pollution.

Dust comes from arid and dry regions where high velocity winds are able to remove mostly silt-sized material, deflating susceptible surfaces. This includes areas where grazing, ploughing, vehicle use and other human activities have further destabilized the land, though not all source areas have been largely affected by anthropogenic impacts. One-third of the global land area is covered by dust-producing surfaces, made up of hyper-arid regions like the Sahara that covers 0.9 billion hectares, and dry-lands, which occupy 5.2 billion hectares.

Dust in the atmosphere is produced by saltation and sandblasting of sand-sized grains, and it is transported through the troposphere. This airborne dust is considered an aerosol and once in the atmosphere, it can produce strong local radiative forcing. Saharan dust in particular can be transported and deposited as far as the Caribbean and the Amazon, and may affect air temperatures, cause ocean cooling, and alter rainfall amounts.

Dust in homes, offices, and other human environments contains small amounts of plant pollen, human and animal hairs, textile fibres, paper fibres, minerals from outdoor soil, human skin cells, burnt meteorite particles and many other materials which may be found in the local environment.

Dust kicked up by vehicles travelling on roads may make up 33 per cent of air pollution. Road dust consists of deposition of vehicle exhausts and industrial exhausts, tire and brake wear, dust from paved roads or potholes, and dust from construction sites. Road dust represents a significant source contributing to the generation and release of particulate matter into the atmosphere. Control of road dust is a significant challenge in urban areas, and also in other spheres with high levels of vehicular traffic upon unsealed roads such as quarries and garbage dumps.

Again, the questions are once more asked: “How much longer will this situation be allowed to continue before legislation is introduced to manage this problem? What will be required to convince the Government of the day that poor air quality standards will eventually detrimentally impact the very important tourism industry?”

In my view, environmental management must be strengthened; traffic control must be tightened according to different automobile exhaust levels and a vehicle emission air quality monitoring system must be introduced. Quality of the oil for automobiles must be regulated and enforced, thus controlling vehicle particulate emission.

Construction sites must reach and maintain the standard stipulated for environmental protection, and implement effective measures and systems to control the dust pollution created by this industry. Government must, by its elected mandate, take stronger measures in ensuring environmental enforcement of its regulations, by requiring its departments and ministries responsible for environmental protection and traffic control, to start practising robust environmental enforcement, so that more than 50 per cent of this country’s dust problem is brought under immediate control.

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