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loujudson at mac.com
Tue May 11 17:09:51 PDT 2021
How dangerous is playa dust at Burning Man for your health?
Breakfast, lunch and dinner at Burning Man is served with a side of dust.
Dust is in the air, it's on the ground, it's in places where the sun doesn't shine. Burners eat it, drink it and inhale it -- there is just no dusting off when you're in Black Rock City.
Masks, bandannas and bedazzled respirators are wrapped around Burners' muzzles in an effort to keep the chalk out of their mouths and nostrils, but the fashionable flair is often futile.
"Your eyelashes are covered, your clothes are covered -- all the clothes you wear, they’re impossible to clean again," said Wendover Brown, a frequent Burner who co-founded a fashionable protective mask company, Vogmask, that caters to, among other people, Burners. "It’s such a fine dust, those microscopic particles, they get into everything."
Experts say, however, that the extent to which masks and bandannas really help is relatively limited. The good news is, if your lungs take on a bit of dust, you're not more likely to end up six feet under.
Alkali in the air
Since 1990, Burning Man has been held on the Black Rock Desert playa, an inhospitable, ancient lake flat made of alkaline dust. As the event has grown from a few hundred to tens of thousands of attendees, the increased vehicle and foot traffic has led to more frequent dust storms.
The dust is known to stain not only clothes, but cars; it can seize your bike chain, crack your feet, and, not least of all, exhaust your lungs. From a cough to a cold to loss of voice, Burners call the aftermath of breathing in dust daily "playa lung."
"Normally, you could see two miles on a clear day on the playa. During a dust storm, you can only see two yards," said Brown.
In an effort to study the effects of Burning Man on the surrounding Black Rock Desert, air quality specialists conducted a study of concentrations of particulate matter in the air during the event. Unsurprisingly, the analyses found that the air quality at Burning Man during the peak days of the event is atrocious, far exceeding national air quality standards all days during the event and during many of the days leading up to it, when staff, volunteers and artists are on-site.
The most recently published air quality data was collected at Burning Man 2017, and the concentration of particulate matter -- which can be anything from dust to smoke and ash -- was so high that it at times maxed out the monitoring instruments, according to a 2019 environmental report by the Bureau of Land Management.
Playa dust is made of both larger and smaller particulate matter.
During seven of nine days, the measurement of larger particulate matter exceeded 600 micrograms per cubic meter, which typically warrants a hazard notice -- indicating the highest level of danger -- from air quality officials.
The measurement of smaller particulate matter reached hazard levels as well, exceeding 250 micrograms per cubic meter, on five days of the event.
"If this is a typical week at Burning Man, it would be a concern... but I think people understand that, and a lot of them stay inside" their RVs or other shelters, said Brendan Schnieder, an air quality specialist with Washoe County.
Schnieder noted Burning Man that year coincided with a wildfire, so levels of larger particulate matter were especially high.
What Burners breathe
When looking at particulate matter, air quality specialists look at two categories, the larger and smaller matter. The larger matter is PM10, or matter that is 10 micrometers wide, and the smaller matter, and matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller.
How small is 2.5 micrometers? Think about a single hair from your head, on average about 70 micrometers in diameter, making it 30 times larger than the largest fine particle, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Schnieder explained that the larger particles, the PM10 particles, will find their way into airways such as your throat, but it's the smaller ones, the PM2.5 particles, that will make their way to your lungs.
Surgical masks and bandannas might protect you from the larger particles, Schnieder said, "but anything that will get in your lungs, those won’t do much good."
Dr. Aleem Surani, a pulmonary medical specialist at the Northern Nevada Medical Group, said short-term exposure to playa dust is unlikely to cause any long-term health effects, even if repeated.
"Based on what I can extrapolate from, there’s no significant concern for the average person going to Burning Man," Surani said.
Surani said it's hard to say with certainty that there are no effects because the research isn't there. Most research focuses on prolonged, repeated exposure over decades, generally in workplaces such as mines, construction sites and agricultural facilities.
Often the concern in such research is silica, a compound that can be considered a carcinogen and is found in playa dust, though it's a different type of silica than that found at, say, a mine.
"Sand and shards of glass are made of the same thing, but inhaling shards of glass is obviously very different than inhaling sand," he said.
Granted, anyone attending Burning Man with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, should use extra caution, he said. Children and elderly people also should attend with caution.
Often people are concerned with the health effects of dust on children at Burning Man, especially if personal protective gear such as masks doesn't properly fit their faces. To be effective at all, a mask has to fit the face snugly, Schnieder said.
"People are going to probably have gunk in their mouth and throat, and hopefully they’re drinking lots of water and taking it easy during the wind," he said.
A doctor visit is recommended if any effects of breathing in dust persist beyond a week or two, according to Surani.
Jenny Kane covers arts and culture in Northern Nevada, as well as the dynamic relationship between the state and the growing Burning Man community. She also covers the state's burgeoning cannabis industry (Check out her podcast, the Potcast, on iTunes.) Support her work in Reno by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
Lou Judson * Intuitive Audio
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-- paraphrase of the Dalai Lama.
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