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Our annual Best of the City gets the hyper-local treatment this year with neighborhood-by-neighborhood pics for top places to eat, drink, play, and shop. And speaking of bests, we've got Top Doctors here, too!

Writer in Residence: Breathe Out

A dust storm on the edge of Lake Mead National Recreation Area
John Locher

The warming planet and human disturbance whip up the danger lurking in the dust

On Interstate 10 in New Mexico, the yellow roadside signs become increasingly alarming. First appears the equivocal, “Dust storms may exist next 10 miles.” Then, ramping up in intensity, the poetic: In a dust storm / pull off roadway. / Turn vehicle off. / Feet off brakes. / Stay buckled. Somewhere else, either in New Mexico or Arizona, is a mandate to cut the headlights.

It’s summertime, 2020, and I’m on the road, driving from Texas to California. I’m carrying my grandfather’s ashes in the passenger’s seat. He died of COVID on July 8, at an Alzheimer’s facility near Dallas, and my brother, mother, and I had driven there to be with him as he took his last breaths. We were only allowed to see him from behind a closed window, lest we catch the virus, too. I’d never seen anyone breathe like that — each breath requiring immense effort, gulping air with the whole force of his body. I didn’t want to think about what the virus was doing to his lungs; it was clear just from watching that it was ravaging them.

I’m on the road many times that year. I lose visibility in Tennessee and Nebraska, from rain. Nearly lose it in Wyoming, from snow. In northern California, I watch lightning strikes flash and drive out before the wildfire smoke overtakes the San Francisco Bay. In Arizona, on my way east a month after my grandfather died, winds pick up, the sky darkens, and lightning stitches across bruise-colored clouds. Somewhere behind me, dust thickens into a proper storm. I drive faster and faster, and my visibility stays clear. I outrun the storm.

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Later, I learn New Mexico’s Department of Transportation put up the cautionary road signs in 2017, following a 25-car pileup during a June dust storm. Six people died.

DUST KILLS. IT can kill fast, and it can kill slow. Fast like the pileup. Slow like prolonged exposure. The body can usually stop large particles from doing too much damage, trapping them in the nose’s mucus or in the mouth. But small particles can reach the lungs, potentially inflaming them. They can reach the lungs’ terminal airways and from there enter the bloodstream. That’s where the danger lies. Over time, particulate matter can devastate the heart.

My first Vegas dust storm rips through the valley in October 2021, exactly three days after I’ve moved here. Sitting at my desk in the tiny studio I now call home, I see a haze fall over the street outside the window. The sky turns a milky yellow. Branches swirl. I watch, anxiously, as a spindly palm tree whips back and forth next to my car, and I think about those videos of trees crashing through windshields and crushing vehicles. I run outside to move my car, the debris of other people’s lives — trash bags, receipts — flying around me. Back in the apartment complex elevator a man says to me, “It sucks out there.”

I soon become accustomed to the way these storms affect my body. My chest tightens. Throat prickles. Head aches. It’s always a guessing game: Is it dust or COVID? I’ve yet to test positive. I have exercise-induced asthma, but generally my lungs are healthy, and I wonder what will happen to them once I get sick or inhale too much bad air. I read research papers about naturally occurring asbestos in soils outside Henderson, near Boulder City. Arsenic in the soil around Nellis Dunes, near North Las Vegas. Is this what I’m breathing?

BRENDA BUCK GREW up on a remote cattle ranch in Montana. In 1998, she moved to Las Vegas to start a job at UNLV’s department of Geoscience. She developed asthma. “My research was to go out and dig soil pits,” she said. “I was hiking, driving out on various dirt roads, just going out and doing geology. A lot of camping. I was very close to the earth.” Earlier in her career, she researched the depleted uranium from ammunition used during the Gulf Wars. She then transitioned her focus on other areas of medical geology, mostly studying how soils affected human bodies. “We are all breathing this stuff,” she told me. “What does that do?”

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Of particular interest were Nellis Dunes, the popular off-road vehicle recreation spot east of Interstate 15. At the time, Las Vegas was exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits for particulates, and Buck wanted to find the answer to a controversial question: Was the air quality natural, or was it human-caused?

What often matters, she says, is the type of soil. Some soil, when driven upon, compacts and becomes less likely to release into the air. And wind is more likely than humans to stir up dust from sand dunes. But desert pavement and cryptobiotic crusts can contain tens of thousands of years’ worth of dust accumulated underneath them, and when it is disturbed, the results can be disastrous. Buck and her colleagues found high levels of arsenic in the soil around Nellis Dunes and concluded that human disturbance had doubled the amount of dust in the area.

Buck and her colleagues also found traces of asbestos-like minerals in the area. They wondered if asbestos could be found elsewhere in the desert, and as they surveyed sites, they found small concentrations in the soil around Henderson and Boulder City, a potential cause for alarm given the impending construction of Interstate 11’s Boulder City Bypass. Her colleague requested data from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and found cases of mesothelioma among young people, and more occurences in women than they would have expected, suggesting environmental exposure. In 2012, they planned to present preliminary findings to the Geological Society of America, but before they were able to do more work, state officials sent a cease-and-desist letter.

Buck approached the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for data instead. In more recent, still-unpublished research, she and her colleagues mapped most of Clark County, and predicted that about 20 percent of the county has asbestos fibers either in the bedrock or washed out in alluvial fans.

THE MOJAVE IS North America’s driest desert. Unlike humid areas, the desert’s soils aren’t moist and filled with organic matter, nor does vegetation tend to hold the surface together. In short, Buck says, it’s not sticky: “It doesn’t take much wind to take dirt up and fling it into the air, whereas grass growing in the middle of Illinois can trap particles.”

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With climate change, the Mojave is only becoming hotter and drier. This process, known as aridification, parches soils, making them even easier to be disturbed. Dust storms will become more severe, and more frequent.

KUSH MODI, A UNLV pulmonologist, sees patients with allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other lung issues. They come into his clinic like clockwork. During dust storms and periods of high wind. During wildfire season. In the summer, as the temperature skyrockets, and refineries, landfills, cars, and roads emit “precursor pollutants” that interact with heat and sunlight to create ground-level ozone, a harmful air pollutant. In the winter, polluted air doesn’t move out of the valley as quickly as it should.

Clark County has 14 air-quality monitoring stations, from Mesquite to Jean. Ozone levels tend to pose the greatest air-quality challenges for Clark County, says Kevin MacDonald, a public information administrator for the Department of Environment and Sustainability. “Think about where we are in the world,” he said. “We’re to the east of Southern California and Asia, so pollutants can transport from that far away and come through here. Then the topography — there are mountains all around us, plus the climate, with the sunny and hot summers,” he said. “Pollutants settle into this bowl and cook. It’s a perfect oven for cooking ozone.”

Usually, the county meets EPA standards for dust. In recent years, officials have taken measures to control dust at construction sites, for example, by requiring companies to wet the dirt every so often. (This measure comes with its own environmental concerns, since “keeping the dust down takes a lot of water,” MacDonald says.) Still, the county exceeded EPA standards on eight days last year — eight very dusty days.

ON DUSTY DAYS, I think about breathing. I kept an inventory last year:

September 14: Drove out to Boulder City and down the highway toward Kingman. We wanted to find lightning, but we couldn’t. Instead, we got dust. Dust in the vents. A dust cloud overtaking us. We turned around.

August 11: With the rain comes the sirens. It started about two hours ago. I was on the back patio. The concrete changing color. Slow. Then fast. Winds picking up. A friend came outside with me, as I stood on turf. She asked, “Do you smell it, the dust?”

July 28: Lightning storm last night. High winds. I sat outside and watched for a while until the dust got in my eyes. Feel stuffy.

April 11: Alert sent to phone. Warning that there could be zero visibility with the dust storm. Can’t see the mountains. They’ve vanished into the sky. Went for a walk to see if the Strat was visible — it is. Dust in eyes. Electric energy in air. The sky looks like a wildfire.

February 10: Dust. Wind. Temperature changes can make you feel this certain strange way. Air pressure changes, too. Congestion. Feeling of heaviness in the body.

IN MAY, I drive south down I-15 near North Las Vegas with my brother. We are on our way back from central Nevada, and the light is beginning to fade. Suddenly, the sky darkens. A dust devil spirals east of us. The wind pushes my car toward concrete construction barriers, and I hunch over the wheel to careen my car back toward center. “It looks like Mordor,” my brother says. We’re near Nellis Dunes. I think about other disturbed land — solar projects in Pahrump, construction at the edges of the city — and wonder what they look like during wind storms.

In June, I’m in Manhattan when the skies turn orange. Smoke from wildfires in Canada has blown south to New York and Washington, D.C. My head aches. My throat tingles. By now I know it’s probably not COVID. It’s almost definitely the air, which reaches 400 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. I’ve reported on wildfires in California, traveled deep in smoke-filled canyons. But this is some of the worst air I’ve ever breathed.

I return to Vegas on a night of high winds. In my backyard, evidence of the damage: an empty plastic olive oil bottle. In the front: a sponge. But when I wake up in the morning, the air has cleared, and breathing comes easy again.