Dust Clouds Over Phoenix --Are
There Health Concerns?

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August 25, 2011

By Alison Turner
, Contributing Columnist







Any poetry lovers near Phoenix, Arizona may have seen Emily
Dickinson’s “Cap of lead across the sky” for themselves a few
days ago or in early July of this year, when thick dust hazed
over a mile high and 100 miles wide around the city.  For any
viewers more interested in weather science, they would know
that they saw not a lead cap but a “haboob,” a word of Arabic
origin meaning “strong wind.”   But as mesmerizing as the
almost biblical-sized clouds appeared, could these dust clouds
cause health problems? Are there any long-term health concerns
caused by dust storms?

Weather Underground’s Dr. Jeff Masters explains that haboobs
are caused by the outflow of a thunderstorm kicking up desert
dust.  

The recent haboobs around Phoenix are born from an
extraordinarily large cluster of thunderstorms called a
“mesoscale convective system,” that, when the outflow hits the
ground, forced sand and dust into the air with 50 to 60 mph
winds .  The larger the thunderstorm, the larger the haboob.


This dust storm, significantly larger than what is typical of the
area, caused airport shut-downs, triggered fire alarms, blew
trees into power lines causing outages and small fires, and awed
observers when a dirty-colored blanket spread over streets and
cars.  

If Emily Dickinson fans wondered if this special storm “combines
the charms of Winter and of Hell,” then they may be on to
something.  A dust storm of such magnitude may have
consequences both more lasting than a knocked over power line
and more physical than a pluck of the poetic heartstrings:
indeed, there are several potential health consequences resulting
from the exposure to such an extraordinary event, some of
which could affect its victims to a “Hellish” degree.


Most health concerns resulting from a haboob come from
particulate matter, commonly known in the world of science as
PM 10.  PM 10 refers to any solid or liquid particle in the air,
whether it is large and dark like smoke or so small that it goes
unnoticed without an electron microscope.  While causes and
types of particles vary widely, the Arizona haboobs are
composed largely of sand and dust.  





























Even Normal Air Is Dirtier Than You Think

We breathe in particles more than we realize, and under healthy
circumstances they are filtered by the nose (blowing the nose
and sneezing are part of this filter).  But if the air is particularly
dusty, or if particles are small enough, some may make it down
to your windpipes (also known as bronchi, when then branches
into bronchioles).  

Our windpipes produce mucus that catches most of the thus-far
successful dust, all of which is then moved up to the mouth by
tiny hairs called cilia.  

Some dust may fight past this second line of defense and
proceed into the air sacs in our lungs – scientifically known as
our alveoli – which is where oxygen is received and carbon
dioxide released.   Cells called macrophages fight any dust that
reaches these air sacs by “swallowing” any foreign particles.

In 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency set standards for
"PM 10" levels, determined by the amount of particles smaller
than the width of a human hair .  Particles of this size or smaller
are of particular concern because they are able to reach lower
areas of the human respiratory system, potentially causing
negative health affects to those exposed.  

So, what health risks do you face after surviving a dust storm?
We have reviewed medical studies to ascertain the following
conditions which you could suffer following an exposure to
abnormal amount of dust intake – such as one that might occur
during a haboob in Arizona.


1.        
Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis). Valley Fever is an
infection that starts in the lungs, attained by breathing in
particles from fungus that originates in soil.  

Valley fever occurs in three forms:
1) acute, which is usually mild with few symptoms.

2) Chronic, which can arise 20 years or more after exposure,
and can form infections in the lungs which can eventually release
pus.

3) Disseminated, in which infection may spread to the skin,
brain, bones, or heart.  

The National Institutes of Health reports that 50% of all people
infected with disseminated coccidiodoomycosis (this particular
form of Valley Fever) end up with meningitis.   If you are unsure
about being infected with Valley Fever, symptoms include
change in mental status, fever, coughing, and muscle aches.

2.         
The Dusty Lung (Pneumoconiosis).  The Dusty Lung is
most common amongst coal miners (think Zoolander and “The
Black Lung”).  Just as there are various forms of "PM 10", there
are various forms of what we generalize as “dust.”  

One of the most dangerous types of dust is silica, which is found
in sand and quartz.  A study performed in 2001 in Japan
reported a high number of lung cancer amongst workers in a
brick factory who were consistently exposed to silica  -- though
exposure to silica from the recent Arizona haboobs is not as
regular, inhaled traces of silica may lead to negative effects.  

3.        
Cotton Worker’s Lung (Byssinosis).  Cotton is one of
Arizona’s top three major crops  so that it may be of concern
even during times that are free of dust storms.  Symptoms
include tightness in the chest, coughing and wheezing and, if left
untreated  and under continued exposure, chronic lung disease.

4.        
Dust Clouds Increase Your Risk for Cardiovascular
Disease
.





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A massive dust storm hit Phoenix on
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August 2011.
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