ADOT, National Weather Service focus on dust storm safety, health impact

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- We've always had dust storms, but in the past couple of years, we've seen an increase in numbers.

We normally associated dust storms with the summer monsoon, but a wall of dust can hit almost any time strong winds develop.

Long term, we don't know if we'll see more dust storms in the future, but we do know they can strike almost any time of the year.

In Casa Grande Tuesday, more than 70 experts and first responders gathered at a conference sponsored by the Arizona Department of Transportation and the National Weather Service.

The biggest impact from these storms are on our roadways. In a recent five-year period, 614 accidents and 15 deaths were blamed on dust storms.

Timothy Tate of ADOT said the message is simple: Pull aside and stay alive.

"We really focused on the whole effort of getting people not to drive into dust storms," Tate said. "It's sort of like the whole effort of getting people not to drive through washes that are flooded. So we took up the theme of Pull Aside, Stay Alive. Really try to reinforce that message that the best course of action for drivers is to pull off to the side of the road and just wait for a dust storm to pass."

We're also learning more about the health impacts of dust storms. It's never good to breathe that dirty air, but according to Ken Waters of the National Weather Service, that's not the worst of it.

"There's another area that maybe is not so obvious and that's health," he said. "We have health people here for the meeting looking at incidences of Valley Fever, for instance. There's a good amount of evidence indicating that maybe these dust storms are also leading to incidences of Valley Fever."

Besides Valley Fever spores, dust storms also carry a noxious mix of bacteria, chemicals and even stockyard fecal matter.

The good news? Waters said we can expect even better warnings on dust storms this year.

"This is one of our biggest problems, knowing exactly when and where a dust storm forms and that's one of the big topics we're discussing," Waters said.

One of the working theories as to why we're having more dust storms, at least over the past several years, is because of the continuing drought in Arizona.