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A woman walks in front of a gate to Yongsan Garrison shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday, shielding her nose and mouth from the dangerously high levels of yellow dust blanketing the city.
A woman walks in front of a gate to Yongsan Garrison shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday, shielding her nose and mouth from the dangerously high levels of yellow dust blanketing the city. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

SEOUL — Yellow dust storms blanketed the Korean peninsula Saturday, leading the South Korean government to release health advisories to the public.

The pollution levels measured at a high of 2,281 particles per million in a cubic meter of air in Seoul. U.S. officials consider 301-500 parts per million a “hazardous” health concern.

And as the dangerous yellow haze began creeping across the horizon, U.S. military medical officials were busy putting a newly revamped notification process into play, said 18th Medical Command spokesman 1st Lt. Michael Schardinger.

He immediately began making calls to ensure that the military chain of command and on-base community members would be alerted to the threat. Crawlers ran across the American Forces Network television channels, he said, and announcements were made on AFN radio.

And unlike other years, those wishing to track the problem could do so on real-time English-language charts on the Web sites for the U.S. Army and 18th MEDCOM — www.seoul.amedd.army.mil — thanks to work with the Korean Meteorological Agency, which collects the data.

By simply clicking on the name of any of the U.S. bases in South Korea, a community member could find the exact dust threat.

“Our system that we have in place is working well,” Schardinger said late Saturday afternoon. “It’s working real well.”

Annual spring dust storms — called “hwangsa” in Korean — carry heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum, from the Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia. The one- to 10-micron dust particles can aggravate bronchitis and cause pinkeye, sinusitis and ear infections, according to South Korean and U.S. officials.

Recent studies also have shown the dust can cause respiratory problems and high particulate air pollution levels have been linked to higher mortality rates, Lt. Col. Lee Hee-choon, preventative medicine consultant at the 18th Medical Command, said last week.

“For humans, it can exacerbate, and now we know that it can even cause respiratory conditions, such as asthma,” he said. “We only thought that it exacerbated an existing condition but recent evidence suggests that it actually causes” the problems.

The dust also can cause other diseases, Lee said.

“The Foot-and-Mouth Disease that affected some of the cattle here in Korea was also thought to have been carried by the dust particles,” he said.

When the dusts spike each year, so do hospital visits and community complaints. In 2005, Area II officials promised residents a better system for informing them when the dust hit dangerous levels. Medical officials said they had the information but needed to find a way to better communicate with the community.

“This year we’ve been a little bit more proactive,” Lee said, adding that the medical command’s leadership “wanted to get the word out in a more systematic fashion.”

The storms hit each spring, Lee said, blanketing South Korea on an average of 12 days over a few months.

“It’ll come for one or two days at a time and it blows over,” he said.

Saturday’s storm would be the fourth or fifth this year, according to medical officials.

The 18th MEDCOM Web site also offers an information card explaining recommended activity restrictions.

To help commanders better understand the recommendations, medical officials defined “heavy exertion” as walking on hard surfaces at 3.5 miles per hour while carrying a 40-pound load; walking on loose sand at 2.5 mph with the same load; conducting field assaults; and running.

Commanders are urged to “identify soldiers at high risk and take additional protective measures” and “include Yellow Dust conditions in risk assessment for training events.”

People at high risk include young children, the elderly, anyone with heart disease or those with a lung disease such as asthma.

Maximum yellow dust levels on Saturday

Note: Measured as particles per million in a cubic meter of air. U.S. officials consider 301-500 particles a “hazardous” health concern.

Yongsan Garrison, Camp Red Cloud, Camp Casey: 2,353Camp Humphreys, Osan Air Base: 2,024Camp Walker, Camp Carroll: 1,013Kunsan Air Base: 1,371Gwangju Air Base: 468Camp Hialeah: 218Korea Meteorological Agency

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