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Dangerous Dust: How your lungs and good health can suffer long after the winds die down

Last Thursday’s massive haboob wind storm swept into the Coachella Valley from the east with little notice. It left a trail of dust and wind damage behind and fouled the air for more than a day. The damage to your good health from this event and this year's numerous spring and summer wind storms can continue even after the winds calm down.

Thursday's haboob seen from 37,000 feet as it moved west over the Salton Sea from Imperial County into the Coachella Valley. Courtesy: Rodney Pentoney

The Coachella Valley’s air quality deteriorated rapidly during last Thursday’s desert haboob wind storm. The sand and dust that was all around us, getting in people’s eyes, making breathing a challenge outdoors, and posing a serious health concern.

“When the wind blows, the wind blows everywhere,” said Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez.

Perez is well-versed in the Coachella Valley’s long battle against sand and dust pollution serving as a member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District Governing Board since 2018. 

He knows the winds like we saw when that haboob swept through the Coachella Valley last week and during our numerous spring and summer sand storms this year, pick up a lot of sand and dust. Not only does it make visibility and getting around miserable. It’s also our primary locally produced air quality health concern impacting everyone in the Coachella Valley.

“Looking at past high PM10 days,” said a Coachella Valley Association of Governments consultant Dr. Emily Nelson, “we had more hospital emergency room visits, more hospital admissions, and more mortality.”

Image Courtesy: Coachella Valley Association of Governments

PM10 stands for tiny particles 10 micrometers and smaller. That’s just a fraction of the width of human hair. PM10 particles in the form of ground-up sand and dust get into our lungs when they’re airborne. And we can’t get them out. When it comes to long-term PM10 exposure, the hazards to your health add up. 

“The lungs actually age,” said Nelson, a Health and Environment Risk Consultant.  “They get more brittle. They don’t have that elasticity, so you’re not passing the oxygen as easily through the cells into your bloodstream,” she added. 

An Indio neighborhood took on a reddish hue due to sand and dust in the air during the haboob sand storm on Oct. 6, 2022.

Exposure to high levels of particle pollution can cause serious health problems. “A bunch of heart and lung disease symptoms can be exacerbated by breathing high levels of air pollution such as asthma attacks,” said Dr. Scott Epstein of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “It can also increase your risk of developing a respiratory infection,” Epstein added.

We are exposed to unhealthy levels of PM10 not only on windy days but also any day when we drive around town grinding up wind-blown sand on the road and turning it into microscopic PM10 dust. 

Street sweeper clearing sand and dust containing PM10 particles from Jefferson Street in Indio following a recent wind storm event.

To combat PM10, local cities, Riverside County, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District pay approximately a combined $836 thousand a year to fund the Regional Street Sweeping Program to sweep major traffic arteries.

Graphic source: Coachella Valley Association of Governments

The program has helped cut dangerous PM10 levels significantly since sweeping started in 1993, nearly 30 years ago. Other clean air initiatives have also brought improved air quality by changing rules for winter grass planting reducing the need for fall lawn scalping, grading smaller areas of construction land at one time in new developments, covering freshly graded lots with green soil stabilizers to reduce blowsand, and implementing speed limits on unpaved farm roads to reduce dust emissions.  

Local experts say the Regional Steet Sweeping Program is money well-spent. “Yes, Absolutely,” said Nelson, “because we’re not sweeping up Dixie cups. It’s not urban trash we’re picking up. It is those big particles that hit the ground and they do get ground up.”

A new Coachella Valley Association of Governments, or CVAG, study shows some new additional routes are recommended due to the Coachella Valley's population growth and changing travel patterns.

There are also calls to expand it further in the east valley.  “It may be that the data indicates we need such a program, or maybe not,” said Perez at a recent September CVAG meeting where the sweeping project was discussed. “Dust does have an impact on your health,” said Perez adding, “It is particulate matter that will impact your lungs.” Asthma or other respiratory diseases.”

Jeff Stahl spoke to Supervisor Perez who says people in North Shore, Mecca, Thermal, Oasis, Thousand Palms, and the Shadow Hills area could potentially benefit from expanded sweeping routes. “If we are truly going to get to these attainment levels,” said Perez, “maybe we need to focus our efforts at the east end of the valley.”

Dust flies into the air as a tractor plows a dry field near Thermal.

The data is still undefined, however experts including Nelson agree east valley residents suffer more exposure to PM10 due to surrounding farming activities and because they’re downwind of winds carrying dust particles. Nelson said, “We do know the kids lower valley have a higher incidence of asthma, they’re exposed to a lot more agricultural dust, more unpaved roads. It’s a critical issue.”

There are two official Air Quality Management District PM10 monitors in the Coachella Valley. One is in Indio. A second is in Palm Springs and a third unofficial station is in Thermal. That third station first raised questions about the need for more air quality management actions in the east valley. 

CVAG is Suggesting several additions to its regional sweeping routes. In Palm Springs– Sunrise Way north of Vista Chino– also East Mesquite Avenue near Demuth Park. In Rancho Mirage– Da Vall Drive north of Dinah Shore Drive, and Los Alamos between Dinah Shore Drive and East Ramon Road.

One other addition suggestion is at the Indio-La Quinta border. It’s Madison and Avenue 50. The intersection is just across the street from the Empire Polo Grounds where they hold the annual Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. There’s been a lot of growth over the past years there. CVAG is recommending they begin sweeping the intersection there as part of the Regional Sweeping Program. Also a mile to the north, a mile to the south, a mile to the east, and a mile to the west. 

Further studies are planned to fill in the data points. Additional routes are being eyed in future agreements.

What can you do to lower your PM10 exposure?

Experts say to be aware of the air quality around you. 

You can go to www.aqmd.gov or use their app to check the air quality in your area.

Reduce your exposure to poor air quality days by staying inside, and limiting outside activities. Use your air conditioner instead of an evaporative cooler because ACs don’t pull in air from outside into your home.

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Jeff Stahl

You can watch Jeff every weekday morning on News Channel 3 in the Morning and News Channel 3 at Noon. Learn more about Jeff here.

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