The present parched land covering approximately 63 percent of the continental United States, accompanied by frequent and severe storms, has triggered an increase in dust storms. Aside from being a nuisance with the deposit of dirt on all surfaces, these storms also exacerbate asthma attacks, and they spread toxic chemicals and infectious diseases. Simply stated by William Sprigg, a dust expert at Chapman University in Orange, California, “anything that is loose on the soil is going to be picked up by these storms”.
Studies of the Dust Bowl of 1935 provide information on what we can expect from these storms. During that period of dust storms 80 years ago, health records for the state of Kansas notes the most severe measles epidemic and very high rates of strep throat, respiratory problems and infant mortality, especially from February to May of that year.
To fully understand the problem with dust storms, scientists study the actual dust particles. They are small enough to evade the body’s natural defenses, such as nose hairs, and they invade and damage the respiratory system. Microscopic inspection of these particles shows that they often carry arsenic and other heavy metals, fertilizers, pesticides and an array of bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists in the southwest are paying particular attention to valley fever, an airborne disease in that part of the country that is very debilitating and often fatal.
Dust storms pose a global problem. Dust is blown all over the world as evidenced by a recent discovery of Saharan dust found in Florida. Also, Chinese scientists attribute part of the bird flu epidemics to dust storms. It is important to note that not all dust is bad as many plants and fisheries derive nutrients from foreign dust. On the other hand, a large amount of dust that settled in the Rocky Mountains during dry seasons has been credited with accelerated melting of snowpack, resulting in depletion of water available during the summer season.
Dust storms are natural occurrences on the earth. The damage they pose largely is due to the increased frequency of their occurrences and the polluted composition of their payload. This pollution to the soil largely is the result of unhealthy and unsafe environmental practices. How we treat the soil, ranging from commercial farming practices to residential lawn care, impacts our environment. We need to do our part to institute safe farming practices that sustains the land. Residentially and commercially, we need to ensure that we fertilize properly and avoid harmful runoff to lakes and streams. It is so important that we live green, be green.