With winds howling and dust storms blanketing much of the country, air pollution levels hit their highest concentrations in the past five years on Wednesday, climbing to around 40 times their normal daily values.“The level of air pollution measured over the past day is exceptional compared to previous years, and from a national perspective this is the largest and most extensive dust storm in the past five years,” a statement from the Environmental Protection Ministry said.The high air pollution levels persisted around the country throughout the day, with the dust beginning to settle in the North by evening as a result of rain, and in the central coastal plain gradually thereafter, according to the ministry.In many areas of Israel, dust concentrations reached 40 times their typical daily average, even climbing to 51 times the local average in the northeastern Negev city of Arad, the ministry reported.By evening, Magen David Adom teams had treated 384 people suffering from respiratory and circulatory difficulties as a result of the dust storm, the rescue service said.The abnormal amounts of air pollution are associated with a deep depression over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, transporting dust from North Africa to the region. While this is the most widespread dust storm in five years in terms of air pollution levels, similar concentrations of dust were measured during March 2012 and both May and December 2010, the ministry said.“Thanks to the widespread distribution of many monitoring stations across the country, the public is able to receive the most reliable data over the course of the storm,” said Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Ophir Akunis.“Although the dust is beginning to settle, guidelines for sensitive population members are still to avoid physical exertion.”Concentrations of PM10 – particles with a diameter of 10 microns – in the city of Arad reached up to 3,083 micrograms per cubic meter at 6 a.m.on Wednesday, according to ministry measurements. In the central cities of Givatayim and Rehovot, dust levels reached 2,853 and 2,802 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively, also in the early morning hours. Beersheba dust concentration rose to a maximum of 2,278 micrograms per cubic meter, while those in Jerusalem and Haifa reached 2,520 and 1,754 micrograms per cubic meter, respectively. Levels in Modi’in climbed to 2,798 micrograms per cubic meter.While the average PM10 concentrations for these cities, from 1 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, were far from the maximum levels, they still reached nearly 40 times typical daily concentrations.On a normal clear day, the average concentration of dust on a national level is about 50-60 micrograms per cubic meter, Eitan Maza, an air pollution forecaster for the ministry, told The Jerusalem Post.The average levels on Wednesday for Arad, Rehovot, and Givatayim – the cities whose PM10 measurements climbed to the highest – were 1,863, 1,922, and 1,863 micrograms per cubic meter that day.While several conflicting models exist regarding the rest of the dust storm, Maza stressed that, despite the projected air quality improvements in the North and Center, areas in the Negev will likely still experience poor breathing conditions on Thursday.As a result of the storm, the ministry recommended that the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those with heart or lung issues refrain from strenuous physical activity and remain indoors.“Generally, the recommendation is for the healthy population not to take part in any physical activities outdoors if it’s not necessary,” Maza said. “For those who are sensitive, it’s recommended as much as possible not to go outside.”While in climatological terms, the occurrence of a significant storm event once in five years is not considered rare, Tuesday and Wednesday’s dust storm was unusual due to its length of time, Israel Meteorological Service climate department head Dr. Amos Porat told Post on Wednesday afternoon.“Every winter we can experience a deep depression with strong winds and severe haze,” Porat said. “However, it usually lasts a few hours and then the rains come. In the present event, the haze lasts for more than 24 hours and is expected to remain more, and this doesn’t happen frequently.”On Wednesday morning, the Airports Authority announced that operations at the Eilat Airport had been suspended due to minimal visibility, but by noon the runway was opened for takeoffs and landings as conditions improved. In case of weather changes, Uvda Air Force Base would be opened as an alternative airfield, the authority said.All flights departing from Eilat would land at Ben-Gurion Airport rather than Sde Dov until at least Thursday, the authority added.Israel Electric said its workers are prepared to respond throughout the country in the case of electrical outages, though by evening only localized power failures had occurred and were repaired immediately.Throughout the past two days, MDA teams have provided care to 384 people who suffered from breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, allergic reactions, and aggravation of chronic heart conditions as a result of the hazy weather, the rescue service said. Among the patients were 354 adults and 30 children.In addition to respiratory and circulatory system issues caused by the dust, some people were also injured by flying objects in the heavy winds, MDA said.A tree branch flew and hit a moving vehicle in Afula on Wednesday midday, injuring a 37-year-old man. Meanwhile, a streetlight pole was uprooted in Ramat Gan on Wednesday afternoon, falling on a car and slightly injuring two women in the vehicle, according to MDA.Shortly thereafter, a man was lightly injured in Tiberias when a shed collapsed and struck him near the city’s boardwalk. In Bnei Barak, a seven-year-old girl was slightly injured by the collapse of a pole as well, MDA said.Due to the continued heavy winds, MDA advised that residents take care to stabilize outdoor fixtures in their private homes, and be careful opening and closing windows so that they do not slam suddenly. MDA also advised that sensitive people avoid going outside as long as the high air pollution levels prevail.“Particularly over the course of the storm, I reiterate and call upon the public to heed the lifesaving safety guidelines that MDA has published and obey the instructions of the Israel Police and local authorities, in order to prevent life endangerment,” said MDA director-general Eli Bin.