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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Health Note

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on hitchhiking germs. Researchers have found evidence that microbes can survive a transatlantic journey by hiding in the crevices of dust particles.


CURWOOD: Coming up, new ocean research suggests the climate of Northern Europe could be in for an unwelcome change. First, this health note from Diane Toomey.

(health theme music up and under)

TOOMEY: African microbes may be hitching a ride on dust particles that head west to the United States. It was once thought these stowaway germs wouldn't survive the week-long journey. Scientists believed that ultraviolet light killed the bacteria and fungi as the dust blew across the ocean. But a group of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey wasn't so sure, so they set up air sampling instruments on the Virgin Islands, in the direct flight path of a major dust stream from Africa's Sahara Desert. They found that on dusty days, the number of microbes in the air rose tenfold. At the same time, these scientists analyzed data from a space-based dust-tracking system. They found that a dust-stream from Africa was indeed sweeping into the Virgin Islands at the same time researchers found elevated levels of microbes in the air. But scientists need to analyze the microbes to actually confirm if they originated in Africa. But, they added, exposure to the microbes would not produce a serious illness. Scientists think the microbes escape UV rays by hiding in tiny dust cracks and crevices. On average, the Eastern United States is sprinkled with Saharan dust about three times a year. Each invasion lasts about ten days. Researchers hope to find out how these microbes survive such a long journey, and what they are capable of once they cross the ocean. That's this week's health note, I'm Diane Toomey.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

(Music plays: Plunge "Just Like Alice" FALLING FROM GRACE)



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