Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Strong winds and dust are a bad combination with health risks

Dust particles can act as carriers for toxic and cancer-causing material

By Camille St. Onge, communication manager,  Air Quality

Dust may seem like a fairly mild problem compared to other air pollutants. But if you live in certain areas of Central and Eastern Washington, you probably know how serious the problem of windblown dust in the air can be.

Dust storms have occurred in Central and Eastern Washington for many years. Lewis and Clark experienced them during their expedition in the early 1800s.

From spring through fall, high winds in the Columbia Plateau region can combine with dry weather conditions and unprotected fields to result in dust storms. These dust storms can lead to extremely high levels of particulate matter air pollution.


Recent dust storms … and a hot, windy summer 2014?

The Spokane and Tri-Cities regions were hit recently by desert-style storms, known as a haboob. The most recent and dramatic dust storms were in Mabton in March 2014 and Spokane and Tri-Cities in September 2013. In the Mabton haboob, a seven-car accident occurred. The Spokane storm carried a wall of dust and dirt across Eastern Washington, knocked out power to several thousand people and closed schools.

“Dry, hot air traveling at high speeds across loose soil sets the conditions for an extremely intense wind storm,” said Clint Bowman, Washington Department of Ecology forecaster.

According to Mary Wister, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service, and the Climate Prediction Center, this summer may be hotter than usual with less precipitation than normal for the Columbia Basin.

“Higher temperatures mean winds could be stronger,” said Wister. “Strong winds increase the potential for dust storms.”

Dust impacts your health

Dust storms wreak havoc on the respiratory health of the vulnerable. The smallest dust particles are too small to be filtered out by your nose and your body’s other natural defense systems. They can be breathed deep into your lungs, where they lodge and cause structural and chemical changes. These particles can also act as carriers for other toxic and cancer-causing materials. Exposure to particulate matter has been associated with emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis, cancer, heart disease, and even death.

Who should be careful

Anyone exposed to the dust particles can suffer some health effects. High levels of particulate matter can be most dangerous to health when people are exposed for long periods of time. Since many people in Central and Eastern Washington live in natural valleys or bowls air pollution can become trapped in these areas for extended periods. So when dust storms blow through these areas, the particles can remain in the air for quite a while, depending on weather conditions.  

However, the most at risk and vulnerable are:
  • Infants
  • Small children
  • Asthmatics
  • People with bronchitis, emphysema
  • Elderly
  • Agriculture/outdoor workers who cannot seek cover

Protect yourself and your family

You can take a number of steps to protect your own and others’ health during a dust storm:
  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Wear a mask designed to block small particles. Put one in your car and home.
  • 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.

Find out more

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