CSA News Magazine: The Health Implications of Dust

Newswise — A geologist and soil scientist, Brenda Buck has been digging in soil and enveloped in dust for her entire career. But the University of Nevada, Las Vegas geology professor never thought about the potential health risks of breathing dust until her research program veered in that direction a few years ago.

Now as a pioneer in the emerging field of “medical geology,” Buck works alongside medical doctors, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and other public health specialists to understand exactly what natural dust is made of and whether any of the constituents pose a risk to people.

Her work with these colleagues includes the discovery of extremely high arsenic levels in dust from the Nellis Dunes Recreation Area near Las Vegas, and studies of an asbestos-like mineral in certain dusts, called erionite, with the potential to cause cancer.

In the case of Nellis Dunes, the arsenic-laden dust is of concern for the 300,000 people who use the dunes for off-road riding each year, as well as those who live downwind from the popular recreation spot.

Erionite, meanwhile, is already a known health concern in Turkey—where villagers in some areas build their homes of erionite-bearing stone—and now Buck and her collaborators have found similar erionite-containing rocks in parts of the United States. This includes North Dakota, where erionite-containing stone spread on more than 300 miles of dirt roads is being pulverized by truck traffic into toxic dust clouds.

Dust—which is on the rise in the United States—has always interested Buck, she explains, “because it’s a huge component of how arid soils form.” Yet, while she first became interested in dust mainly for dust’s sake, she now derives great satisfaction from knowing her research could possibly help save lives.

Read more about Buck’s research in the December issue of CSA News magazine, a publication of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and Soil Science Society of America (SSSA).

A profile of Buck also appeared in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Soil Horizons, a publication of SSSA.


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