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UAE dust storm alerts: Is your school keeping your child safe from sandstorms? What is the danger?
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UAE dust storm alerts: Is your school keeping your child safe from sandstorms? What is the danger?

by Tabitha BardaMay 24, 2022

A spate of sandstorms and dust storms have been reducing visibility and air quality across the UAE over the past few weeks, leading parents to worry about the impact on their children’s health.

Forecasters issued a countrywide alert of hazardous weather conditions due to sandstorms on 24 May 2022, with warnings from the National Center of Meteorology reaching the most severe level (Red, meaning ‘take action’) for areas across much of the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi and some parts of Dubai.

Severe weather alert for 24 May 2022 by UAE’s National Center of Meteorology

The Air Quality Index has also reported pollution levels that are much higher than the concentration recommended by the World Health Organisation.

But how serious are sandstorms for human health, and what can we do to protect against them?

What are sandstorms and why do they happen?

Sand and dust storms are common weather hazards in arid and semi-arid regions such as the UAE.

They happen when a strong wind front – often caused by thunderstorms or other strong pressure gradients – blows loose sand and dust from a dry surface.

Particles are picked up and suspended in the air, and often transported hundreds to thousands of kilometres away, before being pulled down to the surface again – where they can come into contact with humans, who breathe it in.

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As larger particles sediment more quickly than smaller ones, there is a shift toward smaller particle sizes during transport. The average lifetime of dust particles in the atmosphere ranges from a few hours for larger particles, to more than 10 days for the sub-micrometric ones.

How dangerous are sandstorms for our health?

“We are what we breathe,” says Dr May Mazen Hasan, pediatrician at Medcare at both Marina and Al Barsha, Medcare Medical Centre:

“Even though we can’t see it, the air we breathe can and will affect our health – but is particularly bad for children’s health. Breathing in air pollutants or dust particles can irritate airways, may cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest pain.”

Dr May Mazen Hasan, pediatrician at Medcare at both Marina and Al Barsha, Medcare Medical Centre

The suspended dust particles in the air during a sandstorm can harm health if humans come into contact with them, although the size of the dust particles can make a big difference to how dangerous they are, explains the International Meteorological Organisation (IMO):

“Larger particles are not breathable, thus can only damage external organs – mostly causing skin and eye irritations, conjunctivitis and enhanced susceptibility to ocular infection.”

“Smaller, inhalable particles often get trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, thus can be associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma, tracheitis [infection of the trachea], pneumonia, allergic rhinitis and silicosis [lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bit of silica].”

“However, finer particles may penetrate the lower respiratory tract and enter the bloodstream, where they can affect all internal organs and be responsible for cardiovascular disorders. A global model assessment in 2014 estimated that exposure to dust particles caused about 400 000 premature deaths by cardiopulmonary disease in the over 30 population.”

Some infectious diseases can be transmitted by dust, adds the IMO. Meningococcal meningitis is a serious bacterial infection that can lead to brain damage and even death, and its incidence in areas of sub-Saharan Africa have been found to have a strong seasonal pattern – which studies have linked to environmental conditions such as dusty conditions:

“Researchers believe that the inhalation of dust particles in hot dry weather may damage nose and throat mucosa creating favourable conditions for bacterial infection. Moreover, iron oxides embedded in dust particles may enhance the risk of infection.”

While such infections are not common in the UAE and have not been linked to weather conditions here, dust storms are linked to a higher incidence of hospital visits, says Dr Hasan:

“Sandstorms are associated with an increase in emergency department visits, hospital admissions, clinic visits, mostly due to respiratory and breathing tightness.”

Why are children at greater risk from sandstorms than adults?

Children are more vulnerable when it comes to dust storms, explains Dr Hasan:

“Kids breathe faster than adults. Children’s lungs are still developing, making them more prone to damage. This can cause immediate effects as asthma or even long-term effects by permanently damaging the lungs.”

What do children feel on exposure to sandstorms?

Dr Hasan says that exposure to those fine dust particles may cause or worsen the following symptoms:

  1. Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.
  2. Allergic rhinitis and sinusitis.
  3. Coughing and wheezing.Shortness of breath.
  4. Lower respiratory tract infections.
  5. Obstructive airway diseases (asthma, bronchitis, COPD).
  6. Interstitial lung diseases.
  7. Absence from school days.

Is your school keeping your child safe from sandstorms?

Parents have been worried about the health impact of the sandstorms on their children, with several parents telling SchoolsCompared that they are not sure whether their school is doing enough to keep their children safe while in their care:

“I would hope to keep my children inside during a sandstorm, but over the past few days my children have still been going out to play while at school, despite the dusty weather,” a parent with two children at a British school told SchoolsCompared.

“This concerns me a bit to be honest as I understood they should spend as little time outdoors as possible.”

While most parents are keen to keep their children at school in-person as often as possible, there are some things that you can do and ask your school to do too.

In a hot desert country like the UAE, schools are accustomed to monitoring weather conditions when considering whether or not it is safe for children to play outside. Dr Katherine Morris, in-house doctor at Horizon English School – the winner of the SchoolsCompared Top Schools Award for Happiest School in the UAE 2021-2022 – says that schools take air quality into account when performing their risk assessments:

“At this time of year we monitor the heat, humidity and levels of particulate matter, or PM10, to decide whether it is safe for children to play outdoors.”

“While we do really value the benefit of outdoor play, there are times where we take the decision to keep children indoors when the air quality is particularly poor.”

“The risk of serious health problems as a result of a dust storm is very low, but children might notice irritation of their eyes, nose or throat, and those with existing health conditions could experience a flare up, if too much time us spent out of doors in poor conditions.”

There are also some other things parents can do when it comes to keeping children safe in dust-storm weather, Medcare’s Dr Hasan says:

“It is very hard to miss daily day schools or different physical activity commitments but as much you can try to keep outdoor visits limited to necessities.

  • Wear a disposable filtered mask when outdoor.
  • Remain indoors as much as possible; keeping your indoor free of environment dust by closing windows and doors.
  • Consider using a filtered air conditioning unit and an air purifier.
  • Reschedule any outdoor activity during sandstorms.
  • Keep well hydrated, drinking sips of water through the day.”

The UAE Ministry of Health and Protection also offered the following warning of best practice for sandstorms:

© SchoolsCompared.com. 2022. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Tabitha Barda
Tabitha Barda is the Senior Editor of SchoolsCompared.com. Oxbridge educated and an award winning journalist in the UAE for more than a decade, Tabitha is one of the region's shining lights in all that is education in the emirates. A mum herself, she is passionate about helping parents - and finding the stories in education that deserve telling. She is responsible for the busy 24x7 News Desk, our Advisory Boards and Specialist Panels - and SchoolsCompared.com's The School's Report - the global weekly round up of what matters in education for parents which is published every Friday, reviewing schools across the UAE - and features on issues that really matter. You can often find Tabitha on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.

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