When Gregory Jenkins calls up a map of real-time air quality data around the globe, it’s yet another example of the haves and the have-nots. The seemingly endless dots of data points that blanket the globe trail off as you view Africa.
Those African nations—particularly along the west coast—are home to some of the world’s worst air quality due largely to biomass burning and Sahara Desert dust events. It’s also home to high rates of respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and meningitis. And yet it’s so sparsely monitored.
Jenkins, a professor of meteorology and atmospheric science, geography, and African studies, sees this problem through the lens of a scientist. He views it as an opportunity to enhance air quality monitoring in the region and to build on forecasting dust events; a chance to illuminate the public health implications of poor air quality in countries with some of the fastest growing populations, according to the United Nations; and a way to use the science of forecasting storms to save lives in yet another way.
Jenkins, who has spent decades researching this region, says it’s more than science—it’s also a matter of social justice.
“I’ve always been interested in West Africa from a climate and weather standpoint,” Jenkins said. “But I’m also interested in using our knowledge to better the lives of those who may not have the means.”
That’s what prompted Jenkins about five years ago to form an international team of experts tasked with improving air quality assessments, forecasting, and public health outcomes for West Africa.
Jenkins works with partner universities to install air quality monitoring equipment. These partnerships promote research ties and also involve local institutions in maintaining these devices. Particularly in a time of a global pandemic, it’s difficult to troubleshoot devices that are thousands of miles away.
He also works with Penn State experts in public health, medicine, and architectural engineering.
The team has installed many devices across Senegal. In addition to monitoring air quality, they are also used to calibrate dust storm models, which Jenkins’ team has run for more than six decades. Satellite observations are used to further fine tune the models. The team also uses a spatula technique to determine which pathogens are hitching a ride on the dust into human lungs.
Forecasting dust events
Much like a jogger in Los Angeles might check the morning air quality report, Jenkins hopes to help establish a warning system in West Africa. Fine-tuning dust models can do just that.
If his team can provide reliable models—and connect the dots between dust events and poor health outcomes—that could prompt residents to change their behavior when air quality is bad. Another focus of research for the team is indoor air quality because many residents use wood and other fuels for cooking.
So far, the research points to dangerous exposure for the region’s residents.
In a 2015-16 study, the team observed air deemed unhealthy by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards more than 90 percent of the time in parts of Senegal from December through March, when the presence of dust is most severe. However, unhealthy dust events are also happening throughout the summer.
According to the EPA, dust particles of less than 10 and 2.5 microns in size are considered unacceptable in certain concentrations. Air pollution is a cause of respiratory disease in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
Jeremy Gernand, associate professor of industrial health and safety, said quickly growing places like Senegal are at the cusp of having air quality systems in place. Gernand is among Jenkins’ research collaborators and brings a research background of worker and public safety into the fold.
Gernand wants to improve how engineers and policy makers understand and manage environmental health and safety risks. His background in public safety, nanoparticles, and cost-effective solutions to potential industrial problems made him an ideal fit for this research. He also spent two years working in Guinea, which borders Senegal.
In matters of public health, Gernand said the solutions often offset the costs.
“Senegal is developing pretty quickly. And they are poised to be making a lot of decisions about infrastructure and public health,” Gernand said. “There are measures they can take that are cost effective and have a huge impact on people’s health.”
Another area of interest, which made headlines in recent months but has long been forecast using Jenkins’ models, is that summertime dust events can reach eastern parts of the United States and the Caribbean. These events, followed by periods of lower air quality, came as a bit of a surprise to researchers, since they are uncommon.
Except that the models predicted it.
“Our models told us that this was going to happen, but we had no reason to believe that the model was doing things correctly,” Jenkins said. “Until we saw it. That’s when we realized we had a lot more to learn, and we needed more measurements to do that.”
Dangers in the dust
Knowing when dust pollution is severe is one piece to the puzzle. But researchers want to know how that’s impacting poor health outcomes. They also want to expose what dangers are in the dust.
Their 2016 study linked higher rates of meningitis with severe dust events in Dakar. For that work, researchers partnered with local health experts to gather data. Using two years of health records, the team also found correlations between dust events and asthma, acute respiratory infection and bronchitis.
Surveys are one way the team is tracking health outcomes. In Africa, language, and medical records differences pose some obstacles, but Kristin Sznajder, assistant professor of public health sciences in Penn State’s College of Medicine, is helping overcome those challenges. She’s a field epidemiologist and associate director for International Initiatives at Penn State with an extensive background in health research in Africa.
Sznajder is helping the team get the data they need to spotlight issues and reach a solution that informs residents of dust risks. Providing health-based information and increasing access to medical care in underserved areas is a passion of Sznajder’s, so she jumped at the chance to work with others outside of her field.
“This is my first and only partnership with meteorology and atmospheric science,” Sznajder said. “And I think it’s great that other departments are interested in looking at health outcomes and how their field can impact health in general. I’m really excited about this research, because it’s innovative and exciting and has the potential to make a real impact with results that can scale to other regions.”
In research published earlier this year, the team found scores of living bacteria on their spatula samples. They’ve yet to do the legwork to link active viruses to the same particles—which requires a slightly different methodology—but that’s only a matter of time. In an offshoot of this research, they’re also looking to apply this approach to COVID-19 research.
Directly linking these pathogens to health outbreaks is a crucial step, but it will take more experts, more resources and more partnerships. Continuing to monitor health data is one approach, but a stronger linkage could be borne from contrasting real-time dust pathogen tests with nasal swabs of those receiving treatment at nearby medical facilities.
“There’s no other way to connect to human health at the end,” Jenkins said. “You can gather statistics, but that doesn’t really help you to understand if a specific dust event drove a specific situation. That connection requires a clinical study.”
Jenkins is driven to connect the dots to produce outcomes that save lives.
“I’m very fortunate to get to do the work that I do,” Jenkins said. “And, as an educator, I’m able to bring that to our students and say ‘look, we can get degrees and have great jobs. But you can also use your talents to better those in need.’ When you can right a wrong or offset something bad for a population that lacks the means, then you feel a sense of pride about the work that you do.”