The Uninvited Guest

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Last Saturday, as I was watching the 11:00 p.m. news, the weather anchor gave an advisory of Sahara dust in the area. Too late I thought, since I have an asthmatic three year old. Most of us who suffer with asthma can feel the effects before satellites detect this Saharan cloud. Following the weather advisory, I had him stay inside the house all Sunday as a preventive measure. As feared, Monday morning came and he was wheezing with a full blown asthma attack.

Satellite view of dust cloud over Atlantic OceanEvery summer, particles of dust from the Sahara Desert travel halfway around the globe and settle in the Caribbean area around Puerto Rico. This dust impacts not only our air quality, but the climate. This cloud, full of minerals and fungi, alters the quality of air and impacts not only respiratory health, but ecosystems as well. Some studies trace the loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean to this phenomenon. It’s incredible that these small particles from the Sahara Desert in Africa can cause so many adverse impacts to the environment and health an ocean away.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in July 2000 alone, nearly eight million tons of dust from Africa reached Puerto Rico. That’s the equivalent of eight million pickup trucks (each pickup truck weighs one ton. Satellite imagery tracks this gigantic cloud that arrives from Africa every year, peaking between May and August in our area. Most of the population relies on the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board air quality information. Also the National Weather Service, issues warnings whenever the uninvited guest drops by our beautiful Caribbean island.

I was counting my blessings all summer long since it had been five months since my son’s last attack. A combination of factors had been successful in helping us manage his asthma over the past months. First the medications, second, I had been very vigilant about indoor asthma triggers and third, during the summer, since he was at home, I made him stay indoors every time the air quality index rose to alert levels. Nevertheless, here I was back to square one with our yearly uninvited visitor: Sahara dust.