Dust storms, billowing walls of sand and dirt seen in dry areas around the world, doubled in prevalence from the 1990s to 2000s in the American Southwest, and have previously been associated with increased health care usage. Data now suggest these weather systems in the U.S. may be associated with increased intensive care unit (ICU) admissions as well, and climate change is an underlying factor.

The first national study on how the weather systems affect U.S. ICUs shows storms were associated with a 4.8 percent increase in local admissions on the day of the event. Respiratory admissions increased by 9.2 percent on the day of the storm and again by 7.5 percent five days later. This second increase could be due to several causes, the authors write, including a slowly worsening respiratory condition, a lack of access to care, or conditions with a longer incubation period such as meningitis or influenza.

"There is a statistically significant increase in ICU admissions on the day of these dust storms,” said Caitlin Rublee, an emergency medical physician and co-author of the study. "We cannot say this is causal, but there is a strong association.”