Haboobs' Health Dangers
Larry Spratling, MD, is chief medical officer for Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa.
Question: What are the health hazards caused by haboobs (dust storms)?
Answer: Awareness of this local meteorological phenomenon has increased following the gigantic haboob of July 5, 2011. Most of the attention and concern has been focused on the impact to public safety from reduced visibility. While this is certainly appropriate, there are other risks that should cause concern.
Exacerbations of respiratory illness frequently occur following dust exposure. High particulate levels increase the viscosity (thickness) of the atmosphere. Particulates make it more difficult to breathe, especially for those with asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Particulates also act as irritants, causing airway inflammation, further increasing respiratory distress.
There is another risk lurking in the soil of the Sonoran Desert. This is the endemic area for coccidiodomycosis (Valley Fever). The spores of this fungus reside in the first few inches of topsoil; they are everywhere around us, wherever the soil may contain decayed organic material. When the topsoil becomes mobilized into a haboob, the spores become airborne. They are infectious when inhaled. Newcomers and those with reduced immunity are most susceptible, but children, pets, and even zoo animals are at risk.
While the driving risks are immediate, the health consequences may take days, weeks, even months to fully develop. Get off the highway, stay indoors – and keeps your kids and pets inside too. If you’re caught outside, cover your mouth and nose with a makeshift mask. It’s a good idea to limit your exposure to the haboob.