Here’s what the Great Salt Lake’s dust is doing to our bodies

Even if you’re young and healthy, studies show dust pollution can have long-term consequences.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Strong winds blow fine particulate matter across the Salt Lake Valley obstruction the view of the Wasatch Range and Interstate 80 on the south end of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

It’s become a more common sight with each summer — the wind picks up and the sky becomes hazy.

Maybe it becomes difficult to see driving down the Interstate 80 corridor on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Maybe your nose itches and you break into sneezing fits. Maybe your car and patio furniture get coated in a salty, corrosive silt.

[Related: A year after hitting a record low, half of Great Salt Lake is left for dead]

Dust pollution is the first problem to emerge from a desiccated terminal lake, said Kevin Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, and will be the last to be solved.

“Big picture, we had a great year,” Perry said of this year’s record-breaking snowfall and spring runoff. “But we only covered about 10% of the dust hot spots.”

The Great Salt Lake now generates around 15 dust events a year, possibly more, experts say. It’s hard to know for sure, since the exposed lakebed is so large, and the state doesn’t have an extensive monitoring system yet.

It’s also hard to say exactly what it’s doing to the health of millions of people living on the Wasatch Front, but scientists and health experts agree it’s not good.

“What we know is air pollution and those fine particles you breathe in is bad for all of us,” said Denitza Blagev, a top pulmonary medicine expert at Intermountain Health. “It can have whole-body effects, not just breathing.”

There isn’t a lot of comprehensive research on the public health implications of blowing lakebed dust. Owens Lake in California is the closest case in the U.S. to what’s happening at Utah’s Great Salt Lake, although Owens Lake is much smaller. That salty, terminal lake had its tributary water diverted away by the city of Los Angeles, turning it into a dry salt flat. It became the largest source of human-caused dust pollution in the nation. But public health researchers didn’t conduct any studies on its fallout beyond documenting anecdotal complaints like headaches, eye irritation, sinus problems and wheezing.

Contemporary articles from the L.A. Times, before the state forced the city to mitigate the pollution problem, reported bloody noses, watery eyes and irritated lungs in residents living downwind. A nearby naval base documented emphysema and chronic bronchitis during Owens Lake dust storms and hospitalizations due to lung spasms. It also took a toll on mental health, causing anxiety and annoyance, the L.A. Times wrote.

Longtime residents of the surrounding communities of Lone Pine, Keeler and the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation told reporters with the Great Salt Lake Collaborative last year the dust storms were so bad, they blotted out the sun and resembled wildfire smoke. They reported increased rates of asthma and recalled the sensation of salt filling their throat, mouth and nose.

Globally, research has linked dust pollution from desiccated lakes like the Aral Sea to sickness from allergies, fungal infections, asthma, diarrhea and cancer.

“When we breathe in those particulates,” Blagev said, “it’s not just causing a direct irritation of the airway. You absorb them through the lungs. They’re tiny particles that enter the bloodstream and set up a cascade of clogging and inflammation.”

Dust can aggravate the bowels and trigger autoimmune diseases, Blagev said. Vulnerable patients, like the elderly and those with existing respiratory issues, may notice impacts from a dust storm right away. But it’s harming all of us.

“People don’t necessarily feel it immediately, but we can see in the data an increased risk of things like stroke and heart attack,” Blagev said. “Everyone is vulnerable.”

Dust pollution causes visibility issues that put vehicle drivers and airplane passengers at risk as well.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Strong winds blow fine particulate matter obstructing Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake Friday, Sept. 1, 2023.

Locally, Blagev said health professionals have also noticed a seasonal shift in the Wasatch Front’s air quality. The worst time of year for hospital visits and respiratory illnesses used to be winter inversion season, but conditions in colder months have improved as Utahns stopped burning coal and wood to stay warm, and more stringent federal regulations of fuels and vehicle emissions have reduced the pollution coming from tailpipes.

Now, spring and summer are becoming the most unhealthy time of year, between ozone pollution, wildfire smoke, dust and a warming climate that’s exacerbating all those pollution sources.

Lakebed dust is unhealthy on its own, but the particles blowing from the Great Salt Lake could carry arsenic, copper and mercury as well.

The best way for Utahns to protect themselves during a dust storm, Blagev said, is to stay indoors and to frequently change out filters on their heating and cooling systems.

“In general, unless people are smoking indoors, indoor air for particulate tends to be cleaner,” she said.

Even with all the unknowns about lake dust, no amount of pollution is safe, Blagev emphasized, regardless of a person’s age or medical conditions.

“The key thing to recognize,” she said, “is it does not get more basic than clean air and clean water for human health.”