Residents in Central and Eastern Washington are faced with the threat of dust storms every spring through fall.
We got an early taste of this last weekend, when strong winds across the Columbia Basin kicked up clouds of dust. Ecology and the National Weather Service issued alerts, and billowing dust contributed to a seven-car accident that closed I-90 between Moses Lake and Ritzville for several hours on April 11.
The National Weather Service is calling for more high winds today, with gusts of up to 40 mph around Omak and Oroville.
Dust storms typically happen when we're experiencing dry conditions. Strong winds can pick up soil and blow it into vast clouds that can wreak havoc on the health and safety of anyone in their path.
Dust storms have been occurring less frequently in Washington since the mid 1990s because farmers are implementing better management practices to prevent soil erosion, such as:
- No-till farming
- Planting cover crops
- Establishing windbreaks
How we help protect you
Ecology and local clean air agencies monitor the air for dust and other types of air pollution. You can track air quality in your area and check on the levels on Ecology’s Air Quality Monitoring site.
In Washington, we measure air quality using the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA). The color-coded WAQA categories show when air quality is good, moderate, unhealthy, or hazardous.
In April, 2019, we developed a High Wind Fugitive Dust Mitigation Plan. In this plan, we focus on agricultural sources that contribute dust to areas around Kennewick during high wind events.
Our staff hold regular meetings with a workgroup made up of conservation districts and the Benton Clean Air Agency. These partners work together to promote voluntary soil erosion prevention practices. Stay tuned for updates on mitigation techniques and our promotions and grant opportunities.
What you can do
When the winds are strong and the ground is parched, it can be hard to avoid dust. However, you can help reduce airborne dust by driving slower on unpaved roads and by postponing projects at home that stir up dust.
How dust storms affect your health
When inhaled, tiny dust particles can settle deep into your lungs, irritating or damaging sensitive tissues in the respiratory system and harming your health. These tiny particles, known as particulate matter, or PM10, are about one-seventh the size of a human hair. Those most at risk are infants, small children, people with asthma, those with respiratory issues, the elderly, and those who engage in strenuous outdoor activities.
With the current coronavirus crisis, we are all obviously concerned about our respiratory health, and keeping a close eye on dust is part of that effort.
What to do during a dust storm
Protect yourself during a dust storm by:
- Staying indoors as much as possible.
- Closing windows, doors, and vents.
- Covering your nose and mouth.
- Wearing a mask designed to block dust particles.
- Watching for sudden changes in visibility while driving.
- Avoid driving during windy conditions when windblown dust is likely.
- Pulling over and turn on headlights as a safety precaution.
How to be alerted
Sign up for National Weather Service Wireless Emergency Alerts to receive high wind warnings. Weather.gov has links to a number of alert services. You can also join our email list to receive additional information on dust management and dust storms.
For more information
Contact the clean air agency for your area:
Watch for future stories on:
Recommendations and events from Ecology, Benton County Clean Air Agency, and local conservation districts on efforts to reduce soil erosion and dust sources in Eastern Washington's Horse Heaven Hills.