Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Air Time: Beware of blowing dust!

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Have you seen the images of the massive dust storms rolling through Arizona? Jaw-dropping, freaky … pick your own description.

Here are some more photos and TV footage from the latest big storm on Monday, July 18. (The image at the right was published in the Seattle Times.)

Thankfully, we haven’t seen that kind of craziness here in Washington. But we occasionally do have smaller-scale dust storms that pose localized health risks and other problems in the central and eastern parts of the state.

In Washington, dust storm season runs from spring through fall. During this period, wind speeds pick up and turn the air gritty with dirt particles from dry farming areas, construction sites and dirt and gravel roads.

Dust storms may occur when wind speeds are as low as 18 miles per hour. Under some conditions — such as extreme drought — dust storms have been observed at wind speeds as low as 13 mph.

Winds stir up dust particles, which can be inhaled deeply into lungs. Dust particles can irritate or damage sensitive tissues in the respiratory system. People with respiratory illnesses, the elderly, young children, pregnant women and anyone engaged in strenuous physical activity outdoors are most at risk.

Protect yourself

Here’s how you can protect yourself during a dust storm:
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Wear a mask designed to block dust particles.
  • Watch for sudden changes in visibility while driving.
  • Avoid driving during windy conditions when windblown dust is likely.
  • Turn on headlights as a safety precaution.

Dust control is required for all construction projects. Control measures include clearing no more land than necessary, working in phases to minimize the amount of exposed land area, using a commercial dust suppressant to replace or reduce the use of water, covering bare ground with gravel, and curtailing activities on windy days.

After the wind stops blowing, dust can remain suspended in the air as vehicles kick up dust deposited from the storm. In some low-lying areas where the air is stagnant, particles may settle out of the air slowly. Sensitive people who want to prepare for dust storms should pay attention to local weather forecasts.

What you can do

You can help reduce airborne dust by driving slower on unpaved roads and by postponing projects at home that stir up dust.

You can track air quality in your area by using the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA). This is Ecology’s tool for informing people about the health effects of air pollution. It’s very similar to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s national information tool, the Air Quality Index (AQI). Both use color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate or unhealthy.

The difference is that WAQA shows that air quality is unhealthy earlier – when there are fewer particles in the air. See this Ecology focus sheet for more information.

You also can contact Ecology’s Eastern Regional Office in Spokane, 509-329-3574; Ecology’s Central Regional Office in Yakima, 509-454-4193; or your local air quality agency:
  • In Spokane County, call the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency at 509-477-4727.
  • In Benton County, call the Benton Clean Air Agency at 509-783-1304.
  • In Yakima County, call the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency at 509-834-2050.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've lived in Phoenix 30 years, and this was by far the very worst dust storm I've ever seen. But this just underscores the big problem of valley fever, which is one of the worst hazards of living in an area with air that is loaded with particulates. Until Arizona deems it important enough to cure "their disease," everyone in Phoenix needs to worry about themselves or their pet getting and perhaps dying of valley fever.
Janice Arenofsky, Exec. Dir., www.arizonavictimsofvalleyfever.org