Dust chokes Nome due to lack of snow, high winds
The lack of snow in Nome has extended the season of dust. The high winds hammering the region for the past week have picked up fine road and gravel dust and blown it around town. Until the snow finally comes the dust will continue to fly.
“The biggest problem is the freezing temperature right now,” said Calvin Schaeffer, Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facility’s Maintenance and Operations supervisor for the Western District. “You can’t put water down because it turns to ice,” he explained. “You can’t do anything.” With the temperature below freezing any moisture content in the fine surface layer dust sublimates into the air. The drier the dust, the more readily it goes airborne.
Schaeffer explained how it’s like a sandstorm in Arizona because the dust is dry and fine. Vehicles kick it up and the wind picks up surface dust where there’s no vegetation, such as roads and parking lots. “Everywhere there’s gravel there’s wind gusts picking it up and moving it,” said Schaeffer. “It’s worse here at the office with it coming off the hills and the old mine tailings, piles everywhere, gravel pits. It’s worse than in town because it’s right off the hill here.” The DOT office is next to Nome-Beltz High School at the bottom of Anvil Mountain and adjacent to gravel pits and gold mining operations.
At Nome’s Department of Public Works Joe Horton says they’ve been watering the streets that aren’t paved. “We’ve been putting water on the streets because that’s all we can do,” said Horton. “And when it’s real windy we can’t load the water truck and if we try to spray on the roads it’s just going to go whichever way the wind’s blowing.” They go over all the roads except the paved ones. “We do Kruschek and the city streets, we go to Icy View we do our route up on Anvil Mountain. This morning we started around 7 o’clock this morning and started watering the streets.”
The State of Alaska Department of Epidemiology keeps an eye on dust problems because the dust contributes to health problems. “Dust is composed of PM10, particulate matter that is 10 microns or less,” said Stacey Cooper, a health assessor at the Department of Epidemiology. “For people who already have asthma or respiratory issues the dust will exacerbate that. Mostly the health effects we see from the PM10 are the irritations to the eyes nose and throat. For people who are already suffering from a condition will feel an exacerbation.”
“It’s certainly a problem,” said Norton Sound Regional Hospital’s Dr. Gary Kulka. “It’s been very dry, very difficult on breathing. Some of the issues with dust in general, with places that are dusty, is people are predisposed to breathing problems. There are very strong connections with allergens, the dust being an allergen, and development of asthma in children and in adults. People who have medical problems, breathing problems in general, or who may have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are also are sensitive to dust.”
The region has an elevated rate of asthma, according to Dr. Kulka. “It’s very hard on folks,” he said. “You can become hypersensitive to these allergens.” Contact with the body’s mucous membranes can trigger inflammation and that can become chronic. Then it can become a chronic airway problem. “Your body goes into an inflammatory response,” he explained.
“There are other things in the dust,” he added. “It can contain molds or funguses so you’re breathing other things than just the dust. People come indoors, they bring the dust with them. So it’s important to take your shoes off when you go in, take a shower so you don’t bring this stuff into the bed. It’s a battle to try and filter the stuff out of the house.”
Austin Ahmasuk has been disturbed by the dust enough lately that he fired off a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and to the Department of Environmental Conservation on Friday. To them he wrote, “I am very concerned about road dust in Nome. I have been complaining about dust in Nome for 11 years and my complaints have not resulted in effective change. It is more dusty now than it ever has been. I was born and raised in Nome and have lived here all of my life. I am contacting the EPA in hopes this elevates my complaint,” Ahmasuk wrote. He included in the letter that the dust may be more than just dirt. “Our dust may also contain more than just normal dirt it may contain other kinds of things as a result the gravel for roads being mined from old mining locations which may contain toxic materials.”
Since the dust will continue to be in the air until the snow flies how can a person protect their sensitive eyes, nose, and throat from it?
“Stay inside,” says Stacy Cooper of the Department of Epidemiology. And wear a mask.