Anyone who lives on an unpaved road in the summer knows that some degree of dustiness is an unavoidable fact of life.
Dirt-road dwellers in the city of Kenai are going to have to deal with more dustiness in the next two summers than they have been accustomed to in the past.
As a budget-cutting measure, the Kenai City Council canceled the city's dust control program for this summer and next. The program involves the city buying refined emulsion oil, renting an asphalt distributor truck from Anchorage, hiring a company to haul the truck and oil to Kenai and spraying it on city-maintained gravel roads.
The city also uses its own groundwater truck and employees during the process. The cost for all that is about $80,000 each year, said Keith Kornelis, public works manager for the city of Kenai.
Several financial factors, including higher insurance costs and decreased revenue from low interest rates and Big Kmart closing, have spurred the city to tighten its belt in all city departments except public safety. Cutting the dust control program for two years saves the city about $160,000.
"Unfortunately, this is one of those things," said council member Jim Bookey.
He acknowledged there is a dust problem in Kenai, but the cost of the dust control program is prohibitive to continuing it in lean financial times.
Cutting the dust control program translates into financial savings for the city, but also an increased nuisance for people living on affected roads.
"We have dirt roads on two sides of us and the dust is just outrageous," said Nancy Schrag.
She and her husband, Mark, live on Princess Street and Magic Avenue in Kenai.
" ... Nobody here has a respiratory problem, but the house gets full of dust. There's lots of traffic going by and it just puts up a cloud every time somebody goes by."
When the Schrags heard the dust control program wasn't going to happen this year, Mark went out and bought some emulsion and applied it to the road on his own in an effort to combat the dust. According to Nancy, it only did a so-so job.
"(The dust control program) is something we're really going to miss," she said. "We've really appreciated it in the past because it's helped tremendously."
The Schrags' sentiments won't make much difference in the matter for this summer or next, however, due to the nature of the program. According to Kornelis, renting the emulsion truck has to be done far in advance, and once city officials tell the company they won't be needing the truck, there's no going back and changing their mind.
"It's a leased truck and it's on a very tight schedule," Kornelis said. "We've already told them we're not going to need the truck.
When the council discussed cutting the program, Bookey suggested the city use water trucks to help keep the dust down in the absence of the emulsion.
According to Kornelis, that isn't a viable option.
"The problem with using water is that it would only last a couple hours," he said. "We would not have enough water trucks to do that. It would be more than than a full-time job."
Kornelis offered some hope to people who will miss the dust control program. Since the program has been going on for many years, there is still some emulsion residue in the roads that could help reduce the level of dust, he said.
Not everyone is dreading dealing with increased dust this summer.
Craig Thomsen, who lives on Standard Street in Kenai, said the dust doesn't seem like it's a big issue, and he doesn't mind the dust control program being cut.
"I didn't really like the program anyway," he said. "It made a mess of the car."
For other people, dusty gravel streets are a nuisance or worse, since dust also can be a health matter. According to Rebecca Davis, a respiratory therapist and director of the cardiopulmonary department and sleep lab at Central Peninsula General Hospital, dust can be health risk to people with respiratory problems and allergies.
"It's definitely a health hazard," Davis said. "We see a lot of patients this time of year or after long, dry spells."
Dust can be harmful to people with certain allergies, asthma or a reactive airways disease where an asthma-like reaction is caused by irritants in the air like dust or smoke.
Davis said the hospital has seen a lot of asthma patients recently due in part to the streets getting dusty from the relative lack of precipitation. She recommended people be prepared for dustier conditions this summer.
People with asthma or who know they are allergic or sensitive to dust should consider wearing a mask when they're outside in dusty conditions, keeping the area around their house watered down, keeping street-facing windows closed and installing an air cleaner in their house if they don't already have one, she said.
Parents of children with asthma or dust allergies should be particularly aware of the types of conditions that trigger asthmatic reactions in their children and try to reduce their exposure to those conditions.
If the dust triggers a breathing problem, that person needs to remove themselves from the dusty conditions as best they can or put on some kind of handkerchief or mask, clear their airway and drink lots of water.
A person suffering from asthma should step up the use of their inhaler, per their doctor's instructions, Davis said.
The key to staving off a serious respiratory attack is in taking action as soon as the symptoms start.
"It's very typical, somebody starts having a response and says I'll get better,' and they put it on the back burner," she said. "When they first start realizing they're having problems, that's when they need to start using their inhalers. ... Sooner is better than later. Many times they can stave off a full-blown attack if they jump on it right away."
If someone can't blow out a match due to asthmatic symptoms and their condition does not get better, they need to call their doctor or come to the hospital, Davis said.
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