Frontier Doc

Dust, Death and Disability

How the power of wind and dust inspired fear on the frontier.

How the power of wind and dust inspired fear on the frontier.

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Dust storms undoubtedly inspired heroic resolve in some pioneers committed to the land, while causing madness, disease and disability in those less able to cope with this chaotic distuption of their lives.

The dust from such storms will vary in composition and particle size distribution, depending upon a host of variables. These include prevailing meteorological factors, such as temperature and humidity, along with wind speed and direction. Equally important are the amount and chemical characteristics of entrained (wind-borne) soil, where the former is partially determined by the amount of vegetation coverage.

Medically speaking, when entrained particles are less than 10 microns in diameter (about one-tenth the average diameter of a human hair), they can reach the deeper regions of the lung when inhaled. If these particles include a high concentration of crystalline silica that is common in the sand in prairie dust, they have the potential to cause a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease similar to silicosis found, among other places, in hard  rock miners.

Larger dust particles that do not make it to the small airways can still cause inflammatory disease of the nasal passages (rhinitis), sinuses (sinusitis) and bronchial passages (bronchitis) in addition to causing asthma-like symptoms and effects.

Following recurrent exposure to dust over long periods or rarely, during a very high exposure episode, the very young and the very old are the most vulnerable to suffering these adverse effects. Such dust storms were not unusual in many parts of the Old West.

W.S. Chepil indicated that in Kansas, during the 40-year period beginning in 1854, the “most notable droughts and associated dust storms...of definite record... occurred in 1854-1860, 1864-1865, 1874, 1880 and 1890-1894.” In his July/August 1963 article in the Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America, Chepil also cited the famous period of the “Dust Bowl” during the...

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