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Secondhand sand: How a state park is putting kids’ health at risk

Secondhand sand: How a state park is putting kids’ health at risk

Picture of Monica Vaughan
Off-road recreation in the sand dunes.

When the wind blows on California’s Central Coast, a large plume of dust wafts across south San Luis Obispo County carrying tiny dust particles that can cause serious lung and cardiovascular disease in downwind communities.

Data from monitors in the area show the air quality violated California health standards on 98 days in 2017, increasing health risks for thousands of people who live, work and go to school there. At times, it is the worst air in the nation and the ongoing crisis has the attention of the American Lung Association.

While wind blows sand naturally on the California coast, there is strong evidence that the level of PM 2.5 particulate matter in the air is not natural. Rather, it’s attributed to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area, a state park where dune buggies and off-road vehicle traffic disrupt the growth of natural vegetation, break a protective crust that naturally forms on the surface of dunes and grind sand particles into dust that is easily carried miles inland by frequently strong winds. 

The state knows the public health risk but has fought efforts to reduce dust from the highly profitable and popular OHV park. California State Parks last year negotiated a settlement order with the county Air Pollution Control District to reduce nuisance emissions by 50 percent over five years, but the agency just said it is uncertain it’s doable. Scientists hired to oversee the effort emphasized a number of “concerns and shortcomings” of State Parks’ plan to meet the requirements of the legal order.

Meanwhile, agricultural workers, children and seniors breathe the air — most of them likely unaware of the risk of potential long-term and immediate health effects — and the county continues to approve housing developments in the area. Two public schools are located directly under the plume, putting developing lungs directly in the dust.

My project for the 2019 California Fellowship will explore the health hazard in this community, with a focus on engaging families with school-age children in the reporting process to answer their questions and amplify their stories. I plan to hold public officials accountable with people-focused storytelling, supplemented by public health survey results and data from air quality monitors.

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