(FOX 13)

SALT LAKE CITY — The Great Salt Lake Commissioner's Office will gather scientists and state officials this week to discuss the problem of potentially toxic dust that blows off an exposed lake bed and into communities.

"Dust is really tiny but it has really big impacts on human health, on air quality, on the environment, on the economy," said Molly Blakowski, who is conducting research on Great Salt Lake dust for her doctorate at Utah State University.

The Great Salt Lake has seen its water levels rising thanks to another year of strong snowpack.

"Unfortunately, that’s only covered up about 15 to 20 % of the dust hotspots that were documented back in 2018," Dr. Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, said in an interview with FOX 13 News.

The dust from an exposed lake bed has caused quite a bit of alarm, partly because of what is in it. FOX 13 News cameras have captured storms blowing dust into Salt Lake City or the Ogden and Farmington areas. In addition to an increase in particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), there are a number of minerals that can be toxic to people if the crust on the lake is kicked up and blown into communities. It includes arsenic, lead, cadmium and copper.

"Many people refer to it as 'toxic dust,'" Dr. Perry said. "That’s not a word scientists typically use. We talk about contaminants of potential concern. What we need to do is actually monitor the concentrations in the surrounding communities to see whether or not is it posing a potential risk."

Dr. Perry is conducting extensive research on the Great Salt Lake dust, including mapping hotspots and where the wind blows. While the particulates from dust itself can be hazardous to people, "those are well known health impacts."

(Russ Slade, FOX 13 News) A map of identified Great Salt Lake dust "hotspots" from research conducted by Dr. Kevin Perry of the University of Utah's Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences.

"What’s gotten a lot of press, however, is the potential for long-term chronic disease — primarily cancer — associated with metals that are in the lake sediment," he added.

Blakowski is currently research the effects of Great Salt Lake dust downwind, conducting some experiments on crops.

"I found that Great Salt Lake dust can transfer metals to cabbage leaves," she said. "Further work needs to be done to understand how Great Salt Lake dust could alter the composition of food crops grown downwind as well as water ways, soils, plants and natural ecosystems."

The Utah State Legislature did appropriate some money this year to help fund more air quality monitors around the Great Salt Lake to document the dust. Utah's Division of Air Quality is also relocating some monitors in an effort to provide better data on dust and its risks. At the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake's Issues Forum last week, research on dust was presented as well as warnings from Owens and Mono lakes in California on what happens when a lake goes dry.

The Great Salt Lake Commissioner's Office, which has been funded by the state to come up with plans to reverse the lake's declines, will convene a special working group this week to try to get an idea of how big our dust problem remains.

"It’s bringing together scientists, as well as managers of air, land and water from around the Great Salt Lake to identify where we have gaps in knowledge on the risk from dust, what’s in the dust, who’s at risk and how we manage it," deputy Great Salt Lake Commissioner Tim Davis told FOX 13 News.

A legislative report has found that mitigating Great Salt Lake dust could cost at least $1.5 billion (and that's not even calculating health, wildlife and economic impacts).

Dr. Perry said policies enacted by state leaders can help. However, the solution to mitigating the dust remains in getting more water into the lake.

"We have to recognize that we’re still in the middle of a mega-drought. These mega-droughts typically last 34-40 years. We've been in this one for 22 years," he said. "I fully expect the next few years will return to below-normal precipitation which means the conservation efforts that are being planned right now are actually imperative."

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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