Every year, residents in Central and Eastern Washington contend with dust storms that wreak havoc on the respiratory health of the vulnerable.
When inhaled, dust particles settle deeply into lungs and can irritate or damage sensitive tissues in the respiratory system. Those most at risk are infants, small children, asthmatics and those with respiratory issues, and the elderly.
The most recent and dramatic dust storm was in September 2013. The Spokane and Tri-Cities regions were hit by a desert-style storm, known as a haboob. The haboob 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.
After a windstorm, fine dust remains suspended in the air or is kicked up by vehicles. In some low-lying areas where the air is stagnant, particles may settle out of the air slowly. People sensitive to dust who want to prepare for dust storms should pay attention to local weather forecasts and check with their doctors.
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."
You can protect yourself and your family 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.
Other information and resources:
Ecology's local air quality conditions monitoring network
National Weather Service blowing dust index
Techniques for dust prevention
Ecology's Outdoor Dust Web page