Beersheba dust storms a matter of life and breath
Ben-Gurion University researches conduct a study on the effect of dust storms which come from natural soil sources.
Cloud of dust in Beersheba. Photo: Alina Vodonos
A dark yellow-orange haze made the Ben-Gurion University campus barely visible
in a February 2012 photograph that dominated a Power Point presentation screen
in Jaffa on Monday.
The photograph captured one of the dust storms that
often overwhelm the Beersheba region and cause widespread air pollution, Dr.
Itzhak Katra explained to participants in an Environmental Health Fund
conference that morning.
Researchers at Ben-Gurion University from a
variety of departments are collaboratively conducting a two-phase study on the
effects of the dust storms, which come from natural soil sources and are
associated with the passage of a cold front system, explained Katra, of the
geography and environmental development department.
“I call it the orange
day,” Alina Vodonos, a PhD student involved in the project, told The Jerusalem
Post, referring to that specific February 29 day.
The first phase of the
study, which is already complete, takes a retrospective look at the outdoor dust
exacerbations that occurred in the last decade. A second phase, which is
unfolding right now, examines outdoor and indoor dust particulate matter in the
homes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, Katra
In the retrospective study, the researchers catalogued
patients at Soroka University Medical Center during the years 2001 to 2010 with
a primary diagnosis of COPD, said Dr. Victor Novack, head of the Soroka Clinical
Research Center. Amid the dust storms, the team detected that the presence of
the particulate matter tended to be two standard deviations above the standard
level, he added.
During the entire decade, a total of 7,582 admissions
for 147 patients with COPD exacerbation occurred, and the patients had an
average age of 68.9. The majority of the patients were male, at 63.6 percent,
22.6% had diabetes and 5.4% had heart failure. The average length of
hospitalization lasted around three days, while hospital mortality rate was
about 1.8%, according to Novack.
At the study’s conclusion, the
researchers found that many more patients were admitted during the winter months
– when the dust storms occur – than during the summer months. In addition, with
increased age came increased admission for COPD patients, Novack
During the prospective phase, which has just begun in recent
months, the researchers have recruited a total of 86 patients – 70 men and 16
women – at an average of 70 years old and with extremely low lung function. The
team is examining what exactly occurs among these patients after a dust storm
occurs, and has thus far measured particulate matter levels and patient reaction
in 19 households, according to Novack.
While the researchers have not yet
figured out how to advise their patients in handling the dust storms, the
Beersheba community provides them “a frontier environmental lab for climate
change,” Novack said.
These storms constitute about 10% of the year, and
particulate matter levels become extremely high on these days, both inside homes
“For now, I don’t have a very good recommendation for my
patients,” Novack said. “I can’t say don’t breathe during these days.”