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The Salt Lake Valley’s dusty week has left us all wheezing

Dusty, bad air quality, Salt Lake City, looking west, April 28, 2022
Ivana Martinez
Looking west past the Utah State Capitol toward the Salt Lake City International Airport, April 28, 2022. The bad air quality is from dust kicked up ahead of an incoming storm system.

Something has been hanging in the air throughout the Salt Lake Valley, and it’s leaving some of us with burning eyes and scratchy throats.

As it turns out, the likely culprit is dust from a storm system that’s moving in.

Derek Mallia, a University of Utah researcher who studies air quality, said wind-blown dust is pretty normal this time of year. The state’s ongoing dry conditions are also making things worse.

“What is a little bit abnormal is the fact that we've been kind of mired in this persistent drought that we've seen over the past couple of years,” Mallia said. “Because of that, when the soil isn't as wet, it's easier to actually kick up that dust into the atmosphere, especially from dry lake beds.”

This is not an unexpected phenomenon. Scientists have been sounding the alarm about apocalyptic-like dust storms as a result of a drying Great Salt Lake. Researchers have found heavy metals and other pollutants in the dust from the lake bed.

That’s not what’s blowing around right now, Mallia said, since the winds are coming from the south, but regardless — breathing dust isn’t good for your health.

“It's very fine, very small and it can penetrate really deep into our lungs,” he said. “As a result, it's not as easy to cough out. This can kind of accumulate in our lungs and cause all sorts of health issues.”

Gov. Spencer Cox recently declared a state of emergency due to the drought. Meisei Gonzalez, communications director for the environmental group HEAL Utah, said that’s a good step, but Utahns need to recognize the far-reaching impacts of the situation.

“This is an emergency climate crisis that we're experiencing and really connecting the dots of how drought is going to affect not just our lawns but it’s going to change everything,” Gonzalez said.

Monitoring stations from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality have generally shown good or moderate air quality throughout the week, meaning it’s safe to be outside, except for “unusually sensitive people.”

Mallia suggested it was possible some of the dust particles are too big to be processed by the sensors. Department spokesperson Ashley Sumner said the monitors throughout the valley are very sensitive, but they can’t track what’s happening in individual neighborhoods.

“People just need to really trust what they're seeing, what they're feeling in their bodies and take actions based on that,” Sumner said.

Mallia said Salt Lake Valley residents will probably see some relief as the storm system moves in. In the meantime, he recommends taking health precautions, like limiting the time you spend outdoors.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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