Earth-derived (geogenic) dust particles are extremely high in remote Australia. They are believed to be a contributing factor in the increased rates and severity of bacterial lung infections and chronic lung diseases seen in Indigenous communities.
Dr Holly Clifford, a researcher from Telethon Kids is the 2016 recipient of the Alan King Westcare Grant. We take a look at her research project.
Acute infections and chronic lung diseases appear to be greatest in remote communities with Indigenous infants twice as likely to die from a respiratory related illness compared to non-indigenous infants.
While overcrowding, tobacco smoke and poor sanitation have been proposed as potential causes, little attention has been paid to the role of unique environmental exposures in remote communities, particularly geogenic dust.
Geogenic dust particles are high in many remote communities due to the unique geology, weather and wind erosion, as well as simple infrastructure (i.e. unsealed roads).
Dr Clifford will work with the Indigenous community, Bidyadanga, located 180km south of Broome. The study is the first of its kind and will:
- Measure the levels of geogenic dusts in the air in remote Indigenous communities.
- Link exposure with community-specific lung health data.
- Explore the impact of these dusts on responses to bacterial lung infections that are common in Indigenous children.
Contrasting the traditional thought that dust is just a nuisance, at most causing irritation of the eyes and upper respiratory tract, preliminary data suggests that dust can greatly exacerbate the response to respiratory pathogens.
Infection with these pathogens is prevalent in Indigenous children and is the precursor to the development of chronic lung disease which increases morbidity and decreases life expectancy.
The most important aspect of this is the fact that geogenic dusts are a modifiable environmental exposure.
“If we identify a biologically relevant impact of geogenic dust on lung health in Indigenous children, then future community funding policies can be directed towards remediating dust levels in these communities via measures such as sealing roads and improving vegetation.” Says Dr Clifford.
Such interventions will lead to a tangible improvement in lung health in the most vulnerable group of children in the country.