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Health risk warnings issued at start of Lower Yakima Valley dust season

March came in like a lion here in the Lower Valley and seems set on doing the same to end the month.

With high wind storms kicking up dust last week and contributing to a six-car pile-up on Sunnyside-Mabton Highway, the Washington State Department of Ecology is urging residents to show caution.

Besides reducing visibility on local roads and highways, dust storms are also unhealthy.

When inhaled, dust particles settle deeply into lungs and can irritate or damage sensitive tissues in the respiratory system, the Department of Ecology notes. Those most at risk are infants, small children, asthmatics and those with respiratory issues, and the elderly.

“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 should pay attention to local weather forecasts and check with their doctors.

Warnings on dust storms extend well beyond the spring season.

That’s according to Mary Wister, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service and the Climate Prediction Center. She says 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.”

Suggestions to ward off a dust storm’s ill effects include:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible.

  • Wear a mask designed to block small particles. Put one in the 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.

Joye Redfield-Wilder is a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology’s central regional office, and she says contractors and road crews can help mitigate dust storms, but only to a certain extent.

She says in the event of sudden storms like the one last week, there’s little that can be done to prevent dust swirling. Redfield-Wilder says that’s especially true since irrigation season hasn’t yet started for local farms.

“We may not be able to prevent the dust storms, but we can all think about personal responsibility,” she says of practical steps property owners and the public can take to reduce health risks associated with dust.

Mark Edler with the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency says while construction work sites and road projects do have dust abatement requirements, farming is another matter due to rights that growers have in using their land.

The one type of farm the clean air agency can regulate closely, he notes, are confined animal feeding operations.

Edler says the public can call the Yakima County Clean Air Agency at 509-834-2050 with issues or concerns about dust and his agency will investigate.

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