Asia panics as sandstorms intensify

Dust and sand storms have plagued Northeast Asia for centuries but are getting worse in modern times, environment officials said on Wednesday.

Storms affect the region nearly five times as frequently as they did five decades ago, but strategies remain elusive, delegates from 158 countries were told on the final day of a United Nations Environment Program conference.

"They are man-made and nature-influenced disaster," the executive director of the UN Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, told a forum on Wednesday.

"In the past 40 years, there has been a huge increase in the occurrence of the event, not only the number but the intensity has increased," he said.

South Korean officials have warned that the sand and dust in the storm capture and carry pollutants including heavy minerals that present dangers to human health.

Dust and sand storms originate in the dry regions of northern China and Mongolia and blow across the Korean Peninsula and Japan, causing respiratory ailments and disrupting transportation and industry, report

According to experts speaking at the U.N. Environment Program conference in South Korea said the dust storms, which originate in Mongolia and China, are five times more frequent than they were 50 years ago.

Scientists say such storms pose serious health risks as they soak up toxic pollutants from industrial sections of China. They blame the storms for respiratory-related problems and deaths as well as the loss of crops and livestock as far away as Japan, South Korea and the Pacific basin.

Similar dust storms from the Sahara have been blamed for spreading illness and destroying Caribbean coral reefs. Records of severe storms here go back at least to the 16th Century: one account from the Korean capital, Seoul, in 1550 spoke of "a fog that looked like smoke creeping into every corner in all directions".

The World Health Organization estimates there are more than 500,000 premature deaths a year in Asia from outdoor air pollution. The storms have other effects, too, grounding aircraft, closing businesses and schools, and damaging livestock and crops.

They originate in the desert regions of China and Mongolia and blow south over the Korean peninsula and Japan.

What scientists believe is happening now is that the intensity of the damage caused by the storms is increasing, and that they are combining with pollutants like soot and microscopic particles given off in vehicle exhausts and by power plants, inform BBC.

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