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When the dust gets this bad, many public workers, including traffic and riot police, wear masks to avoid inhaling the fine sand.
When the dust gets this bad, many public workers, including traffic and riot police, wear masks to avoid inhaling the fine sand. (Teri Weaver / 2006 S&S file photo)

CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — U.S. Forces Korea and the Korean Meteorological Administration changed their yellow-dust warnings on the heels of predictions that this spring’s storms could be worse than last year’s.

A Korean Meteorological Administration official confirmed Thursday that the peninsula likely would be hit with intense yellow-dust storms this spring. The most frequent storms should strike in April, the spokesman said.

The annual storms of desert sands and particulates will be strong this year because of a winter drought in northern China and parts of Mongolia, meteorologists say.

The combined intensity and frequency predictions led USFK Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Valcourt to issue a policy letter this week setting new guidelines and restrictions during yellow-dust storms.

Servicemembers should not conduct outdoor physical training when the dust levels exceed 300 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Valcourt’s policy letter.

At 500 micrograms, commanders “should limit outdoor field training to only the most essential activities and they should minimize the exposure time of service members to unfiltered air,” Valcourt wrote.

At 1,000 micrograms, all outdoor training is prohibited and USFK personnel should remain indoors, according to the letter.

Yellow dust aggravates bronchitis and causes pinkeye, sinusitis, ear infections and respiratory problems. The dust also carries heavy metals from Chinese factories, according to South Korean and U.S. officials.

Although the policy sets new restrictions at higher levels, lower-level warnings were actually relaxed Jan. 22 after 18th Medical Command officials researched the issue.

Under the old recommendations, dust exceeding levels above 151 micrograms per cubic meter of air were considered unhealthy for the general population and called for reducing all prolonged or heavy exertion; greater than 200 micrograms was considered “very unhealthy” and called for stronger measures.

Now, there is no warning at all for the general population until the dust concentration hits 300 micrograms. But at-risk personnel are given warnings at the 50- to 100-micrograms levels. Medical officials define high-risk as children in fifth grade and below, anyone 65 or older, and people who suffer heart disease, diabetes or lung diseases such as asthma.

Warning levels were reworked to fall more in line with both South Korean and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, said 18th Medcom Preventative Medicine Consultant Lt. Col. Eric Lund, who made the initial changes with Col. Martha Sanders, 18th Medcom deputy chief of staff for force health protection.

The South Korean administration issues its alerts and warnings when dust levels rise for two consecutive hours; USFK will issue warnings after one hour of elevated levels, officials said.

Based on South Korean yellow-dust standards in January, “Col. Sanders and I took the most conservative measure and pinpointed the USFK yellow sand alert levels …,” Lund said.

However, USFK and South Korea now have differing warning standards after the South Korean administration changed its figures on Monday — the same day Valcourt issued his policy letter.

The South Korean government rates anything between 400 micrograms and 800 micrograms as a strong storm, and anything above 800 micrograms is considered very strong.

USFK issues its “very unhealthy” advisory at 500 micrograms and its top-tier “hazardous” warning at 1,000 micrograms.

USFK medical officials were meeting with the South Korean administration Thursday afternoon to discuss the new figures.

As of Thursday, the hourly information on yellow-sand levels at bases throughout South Korea could be found at www.usfk.mil.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.

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