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Dust Collecting in the Caribbean

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photographs taken showing the contrast between a clear day and a dusty day with visible haze overlooking Sapphire Bay on the island of St. Thomas
Dust in the Air: A clear day (July 31, 2001—top photograph) versus a dust day (August 8, 2001— bottom photograph) at Sapphire Bay in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Every year several hundred million tons of dust blow across the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa. Our group (The Dustbusters), in collaboration with NASA, began a study to identify dust-borne microbes and pesticides that could be affecting human and ecosystem health in both the Caribbean and Eastern United States. Of special interest is asthma, which has been increasing in the Caribbean, particularly in children.

As part of this study, I spent two weeks this summer in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands (USVI). My job was twofold:

  1. collect air samples containing African dust and
  2. investigate links between dust and asthma.

The first part proved easy. We had a series of clear days, followed by a large dust event (see photographs at right). Samples were taken by pumping a set amount of air through a sterile filter (see below). The filters were brought back to the CMGP lab in St. Petersburg for cultivation (actually growing viable bacteria and fungi) or extraction (retrieving DNA to identify organisms without the selective pressure of the growth media).

the Griffin-Shinn 2000 Air Sampler shown deployed, overlooking the water
The Sampler: The Griffin-Shinn 2000 Air Sampler collecting a dust sample at Deck Point, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
I also spent many days at the one hospital on the island—in their Medical Records Department. With their cooperation, I was able to compile three years of daily emergency room visit data pertaining to respiratory distress (asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, etc.), migraines, and cardiovascular problems (angina, heart attack). This information will allow us to graph the number of patients versus dust days (based on satellite photos and/or archived dust monitoring by the National Park Service on St. John (USVI).

In addition, I was able to obtain prescription data from the island's main pharmacy so we can see if there is any correlation between inhaler refills and dust events, considering that people capable of self-medication will not go to the hospital. Analysis of these types of data should help determine if there are any trends that can directly link medical problems to the African dust.

Related Web Sites
Coral Mortality and African Dust Project
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Conference on the Effects of Globally Transported African and Asian Dust on Coral Reef and Human Health
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Sea-Level Rise in Nat'l Parks

Collecting Caribbean Dust

Florida Beach Health

Lake Michigan Trout

Outreach Watershed Initiative

Meetings Blacks in Gov't 2001

Coastal Change Issues

Awards Pacific Congress Service Award—Mike Field

Staff & Center News WHFC Employees in 10K

Publications Educating the Public About Coastal Hazards

Author of Organic Geochemistry Novel Visits

October Publications List

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