MAIRE O. SIMINGTON (Arizona State University) is
director of care management services for Banner Health,
Phoenix, Arizona. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from
Hofstra University, a master’s degree in English from Arizona
State, an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in
English/rhetoric from Arizona State. She is a peer reviewer for
the Journal of American Culture and the Journal of Healthcare
Management. Email her at email@example.com.
In the three-plus decades I have made Arizona my home, I have become used to dust
storms that shake, rattle, and roll auburn-colored particles through the otherwise
serene mauve, light olive and gray-blue desert landscape during July and August.
These routine but menacing dust storms, also called haboobs, roll in with the fury
of a genie let out of a bottle. These tidal waves of dust are some 30 feet high and coat
buildings, mountains, streets, trees, and everything else, nearly obliterating visibility
as the storm rolls through. From the Arabic meaning wind, a haboob occurs when
the front of a thunderstorm cell presses down to create a large swirl of dust.
In the desert, everyone is aware that this stirring of dust causes fungal spores to
alight, resulting in new cases of valley fever caused by the coccidioides organisms.
Those who are affected can experience symptoms that include fever, chest pain, and
coughing. Dust — and blowing dust, in particular — is a major health concern
throughout the world. In its Healthy People 2020 document, the U.S. government’s
environmental health objectives focus on outdoor air quality, toxic substances, and
global environmental health.
The International Year of Planet Earth in 2008, initiated by the International
Union of Geological Sciences and UNESCO, also focused on environmental health.
As the prospectus for the study states, “Geology may appear remote from human
health. However, rocks are the fundamental building blocks of the Earth’s surface,
full of important minerals and chemical elements … Earth and Health, or ‘medical
geology’ is concerned with the relationship between natural geological factors and
human and animal health … Medical geology brings together earth scientists and
medical/public health researchers to address health problems caused or exacerbated
by geologic materials and processes — such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and
Nearly three billion people can be affected by dust, so it is important to understand
how to avoid hazards related to migrating dust. While there are yet no precise
answers, scientists do know that fine particles of dust can penetrate deeply into
human lungs, causing silicosis. What is also known is that the denser the dust, the
more harmful the potential damage, often resulting in chronic respiratory disease.
Scientists have learned that silicosis has been around for some time; it was observed
in the Bedouin people of the Sahara Desert nearly one hundred years ago.
Surprisingly, the atmospheric dust that is carried by a haboob or other dust storm
may have its origin hundreds or thousands of miles away. As the scientists say in the
prospectus, “Dust is a global phenomenon. Dust storms from Africa regularly reach
the Alps, and Asian dust outbreaks can reach California in less than a week, some
ultimately crossing the Atlantic.”
So why should we be concerned?
Blowing dust can transport bacterial
and fungal strains to cities and
communities, reduce the quality of
air, carry toxic substances, and more.
From a human perspective, disturbing
soil as little as possible and allowing
natural vegetation to curb movement
of airborne particles help minimize
the movement of dust. While there
are Environmental Protection Agency
recommendations to help control dust,
some measures are relatively simple:
Avoid disturbance to natural flora and
fauna, and allow them to protect the
environment. Drive your car less, too.
So the next time you see a dust storm,
close your eyes and hold your breath.
Imagine where the dust you see may
have come from. Our Arizona haboob
dust may, in fact, be from Mongolia.
For more information:
Healthy People 2020
DUST IN THE WIND