Dust Invisible, Dangerous, Avoidable

March 1, 2000

Agony. The sheer kind. My hard contacts and the grit of a Phoenix, AZ, dust storm are a painful combo. Our plane manages a landing despite towering, glowing, red dirt maelstorms churning high in the sky. But I’m instantly assaulted in the terminal by airborne invisibles that feel like boulders in my eyes. Tears flowing, I escape to the haven of lavatory sinks and mirrors to wrestle my contacts out, saline rampaging through my makeup. Not much of a sight for my in-laws patiently waiting in the terminal. Not much of a beginning for a vacation, either. My own personal baptism and introduction to dust-not one I’d like to repeat. Apparently, increasingly, I’m not alone.

Experts agree. Dust isn’t just the benign object of Pledge commercials anymore. These invisible, irascible fugitive particles are stirring up trouble.

Dust: Up-Close and Firsthand

Scott Mars is an environmental quality specialist for the City of Phoenix Aviation Department at Skyharbor International Airport, site of my grueling virgin encounter with dust. A passionate airport telephone operator gives me Mars’ extension and adds his own two cents: “Dust! You’re doin’ an article about dust! Well, let me tell you, honey, it’s just plain awful what all the building and roads and cars have done to Phoenix. I’ve lived here my whole life. And never, ever, ever have we ever had the problems we have now with dust. This used to be such a beautiful place to live. And now.well, it’s just a shame.”

Mars is a Colorado boy. “I was always active and outdoors-camping, fishing-and I became particularly interested in water quality. Got my degree and have lived here in Phoenix almost a decade. Been with the airport six of those years, and we are extremely dedicated to dust containment.

“But look out your window during our monsoon season, July through September, and it’s incredible. Piled 1,000 feet up into the horizon, easily 10 miles wide, you’ll see it sweeping in, the first of some 10 to 12 dust storms of the year. It’s like a tsunami moving in, and it’s all dust.” And most of it could be prevented.

“It’s really frightening sometimes,” continues Mars. “You are going to work one day and suddenly the wind kicks up and you are in an instant dust storm. Chain-reaction car accidents are happening in a heartbeat. Hundreds of cars piled up for miles. Every day I see a new construction project. It’s guaranteed that they are using little, if any, dust abatement methods. These are the culprits. We at the airport can put enormous effort into dust control, but with all the construction that goes on around here, if they aren’t doing anything, it puts everyone else at risk and makes the city dust noncompliant.”

It also exposes anyone who breathes to a very real health risk. Hmmm, that sounds like everyone, doesn’t it? Ask a native about the Valley Fever virus. Lou Snow, vice president of marketing for Dust-Pro Inc. in Phoenix, says, “I was born in this state and have been around dust my whole life. Valley Fever bacteria spore live on dust and then attach to your lung-forever. I’ve got it. The symptoms? Supposedly they’re just like that of tuberculosis. It’s one thing to have chosen an occupation that exposes you to a hazard like Valley Fever; it’s another matter to be at high risk of contracting it just because you live here.”

Mars stresses, “You can’t put enough air filters on your air conditioning unit. Nothing helps. And it’s the construction industry not taking care of its dust that’s the problem. I see it every day. Everywhere you look in Phoenix, everyone is building something. But here we are in the middle of the desert, and who wants to be wasting millions of gallons of potable municipal water at construction sites to keep the dust down? This is not a simple problem.”

“I read about Miami, Florida, dust being analyzed,” muses Colin E. Kimball, marketing manager for Pennzoil-Quaker State in Houston, TX. “They discovered it had come from the Sahara Desert. Once dust gets to the PM10 to PM7 size, it is able to travel between continents. It’s a big, big problem. I’m in the business of suppressing it, but I’ll admit that, without dust, the annual July 4th race up Pikes Peak [Colorado] just isn’t the same anymore,” he chuckles. “I’m an amateur photographer. And you could always count on dramatic shots at the finish line as vehicles crossed with huge plumes of dust billowing behind them. Not this year. The Sierra Club enforced stricter dust control practices this year, so no more dust.” And no dramatic photos.

The Saga of the Boiling Frog: EPA Speaks

Let’s hear from some regulatory folk who are in the thick of this dust battle. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Region Nine includes Las Vegas (NV), the San Joaquin Valley (CA), and Maricopa County (AZ) and its metropolis, Phoenix. Currently this region is in significant noncompliance with EPA PM10 (particulate matter under 10 microns in diameter) standards. Karen Irwin and Marie Broadwell, both environmental protection specialists, and Charles Aldred, an environmental engineer, join me in dialogue. “Dust is an issue,” remarks Aldred, “because it is a major public health concern. PM10 exposures are highly related to asthma, lung problems, and allergies and specifically can infect people with Valley Fever virus.”

“It’s proven that on high particulate concentration days, admissions to hospitals increase,” interjects Irwin.

“Dust culprits vary,” continues Aldred. “In the San Joaquin Valley, agriculture is the critical source. But here in our region, construction and earthmoving activities are the primary culprits. Let’s face it, in Region Nine, population centers are plopped in the middle of deserts. The attitude of your average developer, contractor? ‘Deserts are dusty.’ Not so. Undisturbed desert is not dusty. But once that earth is moved by construction activities-exposing the finer particulate matter below the surface to wind-dust is created and immediately made airborne.”

States Broadwell, “It’s definitely like the boiling frog.” If you put a frog in water and increase the temperature slowly enough, the frog won’t jump out. It will stay until it is boiled to death. “If you live around it all the time, you accept it-even if it’s killing you.” Broadwell created her region’s consumer dust hotline, modeling the complaint center after a prototype she created in her work with ozone depletion. “Dust is tough and not dissimilar to my work with ozone. Imagine there is a problem, a hole in the ozone that you can’t see. All you know is that people are getting skin cancer. Convincing the air-conditioning industry to responsibly modify operations because of something they can’t see is no easy task but absolutely critical. Dust is no different. Developers view dust as an unavoidable reality, not something they can prevent. Demonstrating to them that dust is easily and affordably prevented by modifying operations is the task we have before us.”

“Beyond construction, the sharp increase in vehicle traffic in Region Nine metro areas is a major dust generator,” emphasizes Irwin, “both on unpaved and paved roads. Driving speed and vehicle weight have a dramatic impact on the amount of dust kicked up on unpaved roads. Drivers don’t readily grasp that. And traffic volume affects both paved and unpaved roads. Dirt tracked onto paved roads from unpaved surfaces is highly transportable, instantly picked up by wind and made airborne.”

John and Joan Q. Public: Mad As Hell and Not Taking It Anymore

“A woman allergic to dust vacuums all of her home’s surfaces each morning to find that, by noon, everything is covered with a thick coating all over again,” Broadwell notes. “From the calls we get, the public is aware of how growth increases dust. It’s getting crowded. People who have lived in these areas for a long time can see the higher level of dust that construction and increased traffic are producing.” Adds Aldred, “Citizens and residents are aware that dust is important. It comes from their own firsthand negative experiences. Ninety percent of the calls we get are from the elderly or people with children-precisely the people who are moving into our region. They have respiratory problems or asthma or are allergic to dust or dust mites, which there are a lot of. In our hotline’s first three months, we received over 1,000 calls.”

“In addition to those calls,” shares Irwin, “we collect tremendous amounts of what we call anecdotal evidence: observations from local physicians, admission reports from local hospitals, data collected from lung associations. The evidence is overwhelming, yet we are only just beginning to make progress in getting dust creators to acknowledge their responsibility in this.”

Aldred agrees. “We know awareness is a big piece of this. We have our hotline, mail-outs, and radio spots. But there is still an awareness hump we’ve got to get over. This is a major health issue. Citizens, residents understand that. Contractors, developers don’t. They assume dust is a natural, unavoidable result of business operations. It isn’t and shouldn’t be.

“Even highway departments don’t fully comprehend. They understandably are focused on the bottom line, the cost of paving a road versus not paving it. But the very real health ramifications of unpaved surfaces have to be added to that bottom line. Maricopa County is to be congratulated. It has recently committed to paving over 64 miles of road in the county. Just imagine how many cases of Valley Fever will be avoided, how many children won’t be admitted to the hospital for asthma attacks just because these roads are paved. It’s a good beginning.”

The Real Cost of Dust, the Benefits of Abatement

“When I was little, not only did no one wear seat belts, I remember riding up front in our family car with that hard-as-rock dashboard inches from my head. Safety wasn’t a concern. Now, children can’t even ride up front. That’s how significantly things have changed. Dust is no different,” Aldred notes. “It takes time to comprehend ultimate value. The amount of change you are trying to create will predict how long it will take. I have customers who are benefiting from our dust-inhibiting product in ways they never expected. One factory saved so much water, it was able to get through the first drought of the year without having to curb processing in its plants. A mining operation found that our product stabilized its roads so much, accidents and overboard vehicles on its steeply sloped roads were almost eliminated.”

Ultimate value can also be measured by fines avoided. “In addition to attainment of EPA’s PM10 and PM7 regulations, you also have the implications of the Clean Water Act’s NPDES Phase II,” warns Kimball. “Construction sites of all sizes can potentially be fined or even closed down if they aren’t paying close attention to the particulate matter they are discharging into nearby waterways.”

“At municipal highway departments, because they are so focused on fixed costs, they don’t calculate how much is spent on labor keeping dust down and grading unpaved, unstabilized roads,” add Vice President/Chief Operating Officer Joseph S. Kroll and National Marketing Manager Ryan Bridges of Roadbind America in North Palm Beach, FL. In his former profession, Kroll was a public works director for 12 years. “I had one unpaved road loaded with 200,000-dollar homes where residents didn’t want paving. In one year I spent 718,000 dollars in labor on a grader dedicated to that one road. Paving a road is often out of the question-100,000 to 350,000 dollars per mile to asphalt, not to mention that more and more homeowners associations don’t want the appearance of a paved road or the risk of increased traffic that it brings. Treating unpaved roads with dust inhibitors like our lignin-based product mixed 3 to 4 inches down costs only a fraction of that and delivers tremendous savings in labor with great dust suppression versus untreated roads that lose 350 tons of material per mile per year.”

“Dust today is like waste in the 1940s,” observes Brian J. Hagan, technical sales manager for Georgia-Pacific Corporation in Atlanta, GA, maker of lignin-based dust suppressants. “Over time, regulations and penalties heightened awareness and made waste the individual’s problem. Today we don’t just dump hazardous materials down the sink anymore. Dust will be the same thing. Regulatory bodies will lead the charge. Thirty years down the road we won’t have our current problem with dust. I started out as a process engineer and was in a very reactive, adversarial position with regulators. Now the industry thinks proactively toward waste, ahead of regulation. They have to. The same change for dust will start in areas like Arizona and California, where laws are currently on the books, and grow from there.

“But currently, there is no reasonable way to enforce dust control, and there are few perceived-to-be-economically-feasible ways to accomplish. For example, farmers are in a tough position. They make dust-lots of it-but don’t make any money. How are they going to be able to afford to add dust abatement to their operating costs?

“This whole thing is going to be driven by regulatory authorities; nobody wants to pay,” Hagan concludes. “Right now, it’s not the individual’s problem, except maybe the farmer. But even to him it hasn’t registered that it’s his problem. But it will be driven home to him and the individual parking-lot owner, developer, subcontractor by regulation.”

If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Just to make things more challenging, there are ways to inhibit dust, and then there are ways to inhibit dust. Snow elaborates, “One of the things that bothers me the most is the use of water as a dust palliative. I recently took an editor from the Los Angeles Times out on a construction site with me. It blew her mind. Here we are in an arid environment, and a 4,000-gallon-capacity water truck is pulling out of a hydrant filled with potable drinking water. And where is that water going? It’s being sprayed around a construction site to keep the dust down. And how effective is it? In a mere three minutes, that water application will have evaporated, losing all dust inhibiting qualities. Three minutes-I’ve timed it! And then ask them how many passes they make a day on that construction site: 12 to 16 times daily. Four water trucks with 4,000-gallon capacities getting refilled a minimum of 10 times a day. That’s 160,000 gallons of water a day on just one construction site! Imagine the trillions of gallons of drinking water being wasted in this region for dust control. Why? Because they’ve always done it this way. Sure, chemical dust inhibitors, polymers, acrylics, and lignins are exponentially more efficient, but you have to pay for them. Sure, good planning and execution of dust-inhibiting plans can dramatically reduce dust creation, but they’ve never done it. So one of our most precious desert resources-potable drinking water-is squandered. It’s just outrageous. It’s lack of education. No one is paying attention.”

“You always have people who say, ‘Hell, I’m just not going to do it,'” says Bob Vitale, founder and president of Midwest Industrial Supply in Canton, OH, and-with 25 years in the business-arguably one of the most experienced professionals in this emerging field. “But you can only get away for just so long with promising to do something and not doing it. Next to our plant in Canton is a small sand and gravel business. It resisted implementing dust control practices for 20 years. Recently a local paper ran a story focusing on neighborhood complaints about the dust. Next thing you know, the company is slapped with a 25,000-dollar fine and 5,000 dollars additional per month until it complies. It could have employed a dust-avoidance plan for a fraction of that cost. Not to mention the permanent aggravation it could have avoided from neighbors who’ll now behave like permanent watchdogs.”

Education Equals Results

“For me, this whole subject is a ‘duh,'” Snow sighs in frustration. “Why we have to keep revisiting it amazes me. We are unnecessarily abusing all this water. Once I have a one-on-one conversation with anyone, immediately I hear, ‘I never thought about that.’ Maybe only farmers are hard to reach. Around here, they don’t even own that land-developers own it. And, hell, they don’t care if they are wasting water.” And Snow isn’t convinced that regulation is going to solve the dust/water conundrum. “This is an educational curve issue. Regulation will have a poor effect on accelerating this curve. Here in Maricopa County, we’ve had workshops forever, and nothing gets done. But once people experience what an enormous difference proper dust BMPs [best management practices] make, that’s how you get somewhere.

“Chemical dust inhibitors of almost all types instantly reduce the need for repeated applications by 50 percent. Then each time you apply them, the need to reapply geometrically reduces until you arrive at a point where all you need to do is maintenance application versus the dust disaster of no applications and the incredible waste of using mere water as a dust palliative. Most of the dust inhibitors on the market today dissolve in water and can be easily applied with traditional water trucks. They’re tremendously cost-effective. You don’t have to rent as many water trucks as often. You don’t have to waste labor on doing applications all day long. We have a developer who calculated that he had to allocate 500,000 dollars for dust-inhibition watering. He employed dust-inhibitor practices and products and saved over 150,000 dollars instantly.”

“Sometimes it’s tough working with our potential customers,” admits David Trahan of Terrabond Industries in Lafayette, LA. “They are a very nontechnical bunch. Highway departments say, ‘Your product sucks the water out of the air, right?’ Expanding their awareness of how dust BMPs can help reduce the need for our products can be challenging but important.”


“It’s no one’s right to pollute the air,” Snow remarks. “As a developer, contractor, or soil professional, it’s your responsibility to control particulate matter. There are BMPs that each and every project should observe. Controlling traffic and excavation needs to be done way before you consider applying dust palliatives. There is a host of approaches, and dust inhibitors should be the last employed. If you are disturbing the earth, you need to have BMPs in place. ‘Think before you dig’ applies here.”

“Good dust stewardship can pay for itself,” Vitale emphasizes. “For example, let’s say you are constructing a golf course community with building pads. If we come in and apply a proper dust control plan, there will be no need for costly regrading after the fact to meet regulations. We can help overcome impediments built into the regulations; we can help provide, for example, assurances to the air-quality board that will allow clear grading versus costly stop-and-start approaches. We increasingly function as intermediaries between owners and regulatory agencies. Ten to 15 years ago we started executing soil analysis, developing proper mix and application design to achieve certain control efficiencies, defined in engineering terms, that tell us how to maximize stabilization, allowing for rainfall, winds, moisture. It gives owners and regulatory agencies an objective way to agree to what the developer wants to do and allows him to meet his objectives within his financial requirements.”

Bang on the Head Versus a Pat on the Back

Vitale feels that in addition to education and regulation, industry recognition should be employed in modifying dust behavior. “The unheralded side of dust control involves acknowledging those who practice good dust control,” he says. “They should be recognized and rewarded. Currently all the attention goes to those who violate regulations, not those who exceed them.” Vitale strongly recommends that the industry and consumers seek out opportunities to reward the dust well-behaved. “I as a consumer should recognize the good stewardship of a dust-aware developer because he helps ensure a higher quality of life for everyone through cleaner air and water and the avoidance of 200-car pileups.

“When we started 25 years ago, dust was controlled with anything you wanted to get rid of, such as crankcase oil on roads. We came along and offered engineered solutions with a cost attached. Over time, we have been proven correct. And the positive public relations and other benefits created when one dollar is spent on dust control can produce dividends if you are creative. If I were a developer putting in 300 homes with a dust control plan and up against two developers who have no such plans, I’d advertise that we were ‘proper stewards of the land.come live here,’ resulting in increased customers, neighborhood loyalty, and improved employee morale. Again, it’s moving from the negative to the positive side of the quotient, which is far more sustainable over time as our industry grows.”

From Resentment to Resistance to How You Do Business

“In my time in industry,” comments Kimball, “I’ve seen a pattern of awareness and response to new regulations. First you have resentment coupled with denial. That evolves into resistance accompanied by limited resources to begin tackling the problem to finally where practices are incorporated into all levels of operation. If you can’t fight it, be ready for it and go do it cheaper than your competition.” A Darwinian progression from resentment to resistance to embracement.

“I’d like to think we are at the ’emotional’ stage of dust for a couple of reasons,” shares Georgia-Pacific’s Hagan. “Regulations are written to handle men and change how they act. Men live in their status. At this point, the EC, construction, and agricultural industries are largely men. Their first response to regulation? Emotional: ‘No one is going to tell me what to do!’ And dust is a very emotional issue because, as a consumer, a taxpayer, a member of a homeowners association, my health is affected by it. It is highly personal and can get very politically driven. Half of the businesspeople in the United States have retired to Phoenix and are real environmental watchdogs. They aren’t going to sit back; they are going to complain.

“Over time we’ll get to a more rational stage where the costs associated with controlling dust are accepted. Then we’ll figure out how to reduce those costs. Over time we always do find those low-cost solutions, no matter what the industry.”

Vitale agrees. “The success of the dust-control industry in the future relies on its ability to produce increasingly greater results at increasingly lower costs and moving to a budget-oriented approach from our process-oriented infancy.”

EC Professionals: Stay Ahead of the Dust Game

Dust is getting politically hot, and EPA means business. Scott Mars observes, “EPA came out with new regulatory requirements in January and February that we had to satisfy by spring. That’s an unusually short time line. Our requests for extensions were denied. And now PM7s are being regulated, even tougher. Necessary but tough.”

The latest hospital tab on Valley Fever is estimated to be $20 million in Phoenix alone. Though EPA’s Aldred notes, “The construction industry is powerful in Arizona and nationwide.” Given the increasingly negative and measurable effects of dust, including stormwater effects, it will be hard for construction or agriculture to do anything but comply, impacting EC professional approaches and methodologies.

“In industry, the bottom line is your profit, and that’s why you are in business” underlines Hagan. “Those companies that try and stay ahead of PM10 and PM7 regulations are going to be ahead of the game. They will be in a position to find out sooner what will be cheaper in the long run. They’ll achieve higher profitability than competition that lags behind, gets fined, and closes down.”

Aldred adds, “Companies that are behind or have to be forced to comply put themselves in a vulnerable position. We know it is practical to meet these regulations with well-placed dust-inhibiting practices. What it takes is a change in operations. It is no different than safety on a construction site. After years of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], every operator knows that safety has to be integrated into all phases-planning, operations, execution. Dust is no different. We need dust suppression added to all operations.”

Observes dust control’s godfather, Vitale, “I would say that we were one of the first companies organized to specifically address the need for dust control. Back then our product Soil-Cement-still our flagship-was very unusual, a polymer emulsion. Now there are probably 150 versions of it in the marketplace. And now that same marketplace is shifting at an almost exponential rate in its awareness and concern for the environment and health.” Erosion control professionals need to stay abreast, or else they might find themselves left behind.in the dust.