SEOUL — The U.S. military 18th Medical Command issued a “yellow dust watch” this week in response to the sandstorms that blanketed South Korea with a thick haze beginning Wednesday.

Capt. Richard Urbon, staff internist at the 121st General Hospital, sat in on a American Forces Network radio program Thursday afternoon to address health concerns. Medical officials also placed an alert Thursday on the 18th MEDCOM Web site.

The dust aggravates asthma and bronchitis and can cause pinkeye, according to both South Korean and U.S. officials.

“People with heart disease, lung disease, older adults and children,” are most at risk, Urbon said during the radio program. “However, all … people should try to minimize their exposure, especially when yellow dust levels are at high concentrations.”

Maj. Chuck Unruh, 18th MEDCOM spokesman, told Stars and Stripes Thursday that medical officials see a slight increase in cases of upper respiratory problems and conjunctivitis during the dust season.

Col. Wendell Moore, 18th MEDCOM chief of staff, said the warnings aren’t meant “to cause alarm,” but to “keep the community informed. We want to be proactive, to let the people know what’s happening.”

The U.S. military here follows U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for outdoor activity, based on the amount of dust particles in the air. The U.S. military doesn’t have the equipment in South Korea to measure the dust, Unruh said, relying instead on Korean Meteorological Administration data.

The EPA guidelines state that as dust concentration levels — counted in parts per million in a cubic meter — reach 200, people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should avoid outdoor physical activity. Levels above 300 mean high-risk people should stay indoors and keep activity levels low, and all others should avoid unnecessary outdoor activity.

Park Kwan-young, a KMA weather forecaster, said dust concentration levels reached 646 on Wednesday. He said levels hit 120 on Thursday and 189 on Friday.

Park also said KMA predicts a least two additional dust storms by early May.

Charlie Toth, Department of Defense Dependents Schools Korea District superintendent, said the schools use the KMA’s monitoring system to track danger levels and recommended action.

He said grade-school principals in Seoul and the Osan/Camp Humphreys areas were told to keep pupils indoors Wednesday, and some high-school outdoor activities were canceled Wednesday at Osan. There were no changes to Thursday and Friday’s schedule, he said.

Dust storms hit South Korea each spring, as winds carry dust and dirt containing heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum from the Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia. According to the MEDCOM health watch, the dry spring months create conditions in which the dust typically rises 9-15 feet before being blown eastward at rates of about 90 feet per second across the Yellow Sea to hit Korea. Koreans call the annual event whangsa, meaning yellow sand.

Dust dangers

The Environmental Protection Agency uses dust concentration levels — calculated in parts per million in cubic meter — to measure the intensity of the sandstorms. At certain plateaus, precautions should be taken.

200: People with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should avoid outdoor physical activity.300: Those high-risk people should stay indoors and minimize activity. All others should try to avoid outdoor activity.Wednesday in South Korea: 646

Thursday: 120

Friday: 189

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