Monday, November 3, 2008

UA's dust research has public health, safety applications

[Source: HEIDI ROWLEY, Tucson Citizen] - University of Arizona research could make it possible to warn people with asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions days before dust and pollen become health risks.

UA professor William Sprigg and his fellow researchers are using NASA satellites and National Weather Service technology to create dust models, or images, that can more accurately predict when and where a dust storm will occur. Most of the research has focused on the Southwest, including California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Health agencies are interested in the new technology because dust and the pathogens it carries have been blamed for aggravating some heart and lung conditions, including asthma and allergies.

"Today we can forecast pretty well three days in advance when there will be a significant amount of dust in the air and we can tell where that dust will go," Sprigg said.

He envisions four different applications for what they have learned about how dust travels:

• Public health alerts for those who are sensitive to dust.
• Transportation alerts that will help drivers know where and when visibility will be reduced.
• Tracking when pollen-makers will bloom and to which parts of town the pollen will travel.
• Giving ZIP code-specific forecasts of air quality changes.

Sprigg said the research started with a question.

"If we knew a little bit more about the surface, where the shrubs are, the bodies of water, could we perhaps predict when there is going to be a dust storm generated?" he said. "Dust modeling always has relied on surface characteristics that we knew were wrong."

To make predictions scientists had generally relied on old maps and topographical surveys that did not take into account seasonal variations.

The idea led to a collaboration between UA, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, NASA, the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona and New Mexico health departments.

Funding from NASA for the NASA Public Health Applications in Remote Sensing project will soon run out, but Sprigg is confident that more funding will soon be available because the project has so many potential applications for use in public health and safety.

The Arizona Department of Health estimates that about 600,000 Arizonans have asthma - 79,0000 of them children.

Beth Gorman, program manager for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, said the models may be used to warn people much more quickly when air quality levels may become dangerous. She said air quality warnings are currently based on real-time monitors and not on what the air is expected to be like.

"It would be great if it could get the word out ahead of time," said Gorman, who has been working with Sprigg on how the university and department could work together.

She said because the warnings are slowly disseminated through media outlets, sometimes those people who could be adversely affected by bad air quality don't get the news until it's too late.
For example, Sprigg said, "School nurses will be able to say, 'All classes scheduled for Wednesday morning, we don't want them outside,' or parents can be alerted that their asthmatic child will be at a higher risk on Wednesday as opposed to Thursday."

The health department's state epidemiologist, Ken Komatsu, is hoping the technology will also be able to help the state track valley fever, an air-born fungus that is spread by dust and wind.

"We want to look at correlation between his dust models and where we see valley fever," Komatsu said.

The dust models created by Sprigg and his team don't only track dirt, but any particulate in the air, including pollen.

"If these trees are changing the time at which they pollinate, it changes the distribution . . . it changes the farmers' almanac forecast,'' Sprigg said.

"We can identify which species are going to pollinate, and monitor that particular pollen and separate that out from other types of pollen. We would be giving a much more specific kind of prediction whether we in Tucson might be more affected by a pollen release than people in Phoenix."

He said particulates can be tracked using the NASA system down to less than a mile, which would give public health agencies and the National Weather Service the ability to forecast or predict which neighborhoods are going to be most adversely hit by an increase in dust or pollen levels.

"I anticipate giving a forecast at your Zip code,'' Sprigg said.

In New Mexico, the dust models are already being used in a study where physicians are asked to track when there are a high number of respiratory-related complaints and researchers look at whether those incidents correlate with dust storms.

Komatsu said the study couldn't be done in Arizona because there isn't an information network that involves all state physicians, as there is in New Mexico. However, he said he is watching the New Mexico study closely to see if it is something that can eventually be replicated in Arizona.
Sprigg said the university has yet to create a partnership with the Arizona Department of Transportation, but he hopes to in the near future because of the affect the dust models can have on transportation.

According to ADOT, in 2006 nine people were killed and 134 injured in Arizona in crashes that were attributed to blowing sand, dirt or snow. Sprigg said he hopes that the technology will help to reduce those crashes by helping the transportation department know when to tell travelers that visibility on the roadways is going to be affected.

"We can forecast when a particular part of the highway is at particular risk for a blinding dust storm," he said.

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