This month, the World Health Organization declared air pollution a human carcinogen, calling it a leading cause of cancer deaths globally. The WHO labeled air pollution as the highest of the agency’s four-level classification system. What about the Owens Dry Lake dust?
Air Pollution Control District Director Ted Schade responded to our questions about that. Schade said when he heard about the World Health Organization’s statements, he was interested to know if dust were including. He said it is among outdoor pollution sources that cause cancer.
Existing air quality laws have long considered dust particulates health hazards, but now the description has gone further declaring dust carcinogenic. Director Schade said it has long been known that Owens Lake dust worsens emphysema and athsma and is connected to heart disease, but this is the first time dust has been linked to cancer – specifically lung and bladder cancer.
With state-ordered work to clean up the Owens Dry Lake, the Department of Water and Power has reduced blowing dust by 90%, according to Schade, but he underscores that the clean up is not done yet. He said most problematic now are individual episodes of blowing dust. Schade said, “Our average air pollution is pretty low, but episodes create enormously high levels on a few days.” He said this might actually be worse and trigger bad effects.
Schade said fine dust particles did not receive research attention until the 90s. Prior to that health hazard status was focused on ozone, smog and smoke. He said, “Particulate matter like that on the dry lake may be the most harmful.” Because of the small numbers of people, the Owens Valley has not been a good statistical example to study dust and cancer. One thing Schade knows – “It’s time to bite the bullet and finish the Owens Dry Lake clean-up,” he said.