Safety and first aid

Health effects of dust

What is dust?

Dust is a common air pollutant generated by many different sources and activities.

Definitions

Pollutant – a substance that has been introduced to the environment and has undesired or negative effects.

Particles – tiny solid and liquid substances that can float in the air. Many particles are invisible.

Particulate Matter (PM) – PM10 and PM2.5 refers to dust classified by the size of particles captured during air monitoring.

Where does dust come from?

The natural erosion of soil, sand and rock is the most common source of dust.

Pollen, microscopic organisms, plant material and dander (dead skin cells shed by animals) are also part of the dust in the environment.

Dust emission is common in urban areas from a range of activities such as gardening, to large scale industrial operations.

Dust particles

Dust particles vary in size from visible to invisible. The smaller the particle, the longer it stays in the air and the further it can travel.

Large dust particles fall out of the air relatively close to where they are created. These particles form the dust layers you can see on things like furniture and motor vehicles.

Large dust particles tend to be trapped in the nose and mouth when you breathe them in and can be readily breathed out or swallowed harmlessly.

Very small dust particles are more likely to penetrate deeper into the lungs while ultrafine particles can be absorbed directly into the blood stream.

How does dust affect your health?

The type and size of a dust particle influences how harmful dust is to human health. The possible amount of dust present in the air and how long you have been exposed to it are also important factors.

There is stronger evidence of long term health effects from PM2.5 captured particles, which includes ultrafine particles.

The type of dust varies with location and possibly even with time of day. Cities tend to be rich in combustion particles from vehicle emissions which is considered more harmful relative to windblown dust from the earth’s surface.

Dust particles small enough to be inhaled may lead to:

For people with respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD) or emphysema even small increases in dust concentration can make their symptoms worse.

Currently it cannot be confirmed that dust exposure causes asthma to develop, however breathing in high concentrations of dust over many years is thought to reduce lung function in the long term and contribute to disorders like chronic bronchitis and heart and lung disorders.

Who is at risk of the health effects of dust?

Breathing low levels of household or urban dust does not cause health problems in most individuals.

Anyone who is exposed to high levels of dust may be affected – the longer you breathe in the dust, then the greater the chance that it will affect your health. The Department of Health recommends that you think about using dust control and personal protective equipment whenever you undertake dusty activities at home or at work.

People more likely to develop health problems from long term exposure to high levels of dust include:

  • babies and young children
  • elderly people (65 years and over)
  • people with pre-existing respiratory conditions (e.g. asthma, bronchitis), including smokers
  • heart conditions (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Anyone who regularly experiences shortness of breath or hay fever ;type symptoms from breathing dust should discuss these symptoms with their doctor.

What can be done about dust levels in the air?

Australia controls dust levels in the air where people live through a range of measures. Australian air quality standards for dust are more rigorous than those in the USA, UK and Europe.

National standards

The National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) for Particulate Matter (PM) is the standard for dust concentration in cities and towns.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) monitors and enforces this standard. The DWER monitors air quality (external site), including dust, across the Perth metropolitan and major rural areas. The DWER investigates incidents where the standards are exceeded.

Industry licences

The DWER licences all industry and activities (external site) that emit pollutants into the environment. Either the DWER or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (external site) can impose conditions on a company that restrict the amount of dust particles that their activities can emit into the air. Companies must monitor their emissions and routinely report the information back to DWER.

Other measures

Other dust control measures include planning conditions around the development of residential areas close to emission sources. Planning conditions might include:

  • zoning restrictions and separation distances imposed on planning schemes and developments to prevent conflict of land use
  • use of buffers, such as vegetation buffers (areas of plants and trees) that are often positioned between residential areas and industrial areas and between residential areas and major roads
  • restriction on the type and construction of buildings permitted within an impacted area.

These measures help to dissipate dust and other pollutants and together with air quality standards are highly effective for reducing dust impacts on communities.

Where to get help

Your GP

If you have a medical complaint you believe is related to dust, see your GP. Your GP should contact the health department if your medical complaint is related to environmental pollution.

Your local council

Neighbourhood concerns should be raised with your local council. Most councils employ environmental health officers who can investigate local neighbourhood matters.

Department of Water and Environmental Regulation

The DWER operates a pollution response unit that investigates urgent pollution incidents.

Phone: 1300 784 782

All other pollution complaints can also be registered through the DWER reporting pollution form (external site) or by email to pollutionwatch@der.wa.gov.au


Acknowledgements

Environmental Health


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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