Cardiovascular incidents in Cyprus rise by ten per cent during the increasingly frequent Saharan dust storms plaguing the island, a study by the Harvard Institute for Public Health revealed yesterday.

The study says however that the effects of the dust storms on health is much higher since the ten per cent increase in incidents only includes serious cases.

It did not take into consideration the number of visits to outpatient wards and private doctors.

Worse, the study found a substantial increase in the number of dust storms hitting the island, from two to three a year to between ten and 16 per annum in recent years.

Covering the years 1995 to 2004, the study, which will be released in full shortly, was carried out in cooperation with the Health Ministry and Air Quality Control, Weather and Statistics services.

According to the Institute, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are the leading causes of death in Cyprus and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Air pollution, it said, is associated with shortened life expectancy in adults and increased chronic respiratory illnesses and lower lung function in children.

"The dramatically increased asthma morbidity, particularly among inner-city children, is a major concern in Cyprus and the region," it said.

"You realise how dangerous this is for peoples' health," the Institute's Director Philipos Demokritou said. "While the phenomenon manifested four to five times a year ten years ago, in recent years it manifests 16 to 17 times."

Cyprus experienced one such dust cloud in the past week with levels exceeding three times the EU-recommended limit of 50 micrograms per cubic metre.

Authorities warned members of vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly to avoid working and exercising outdoors.

The dust descended on the island last Tuesday week, blown east from the deserts of North Africa.

The weather service said yesterday it did not expect a second dust cloud in the next few days.

In most cases the dust originates from the Sahara Desert though the Harvard Institute study found that sometimes it comes from the Middle East, researchers said.

Dust particles during the days covered by the study were well over the limits set by the European Union and average concentration in some cases surpassed 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre.

Demokritou suggested that there was no safety threshold when it comes to air pollution.

"There is a tolerance limit," he said. Even micrograms of particles cause health problems.

He said in Europe, particle pollution cuts an average nine months from a person's life expectancy on top of causing serious effects to human health.

It is believed that the smaller the particles the deeper they penetrate the lungs and affect both a person's breathing and cardiovascular system.

The Institute said that several studies were in progress to assess the long-term consequences of chronic exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants on the development of asthma and chronic obstructive respiratory disease.

Ongoing studies involve the assessment of chronic respiratory effects in large groups of children living in both suburban and urban environments to assess the persistence of the air pollution effects as these children reach maturity, and the nutritional and lifestyle characteristics that may modify response to air pollution.

One focuses on car fumes and their possible relation to asthma.