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The Dust Bowl and an Undiagnosed Illness

Updated on January 21, 2013

2011 © Roy Blizzard III

In April 19, 1934 my mother, Gloria Lee Letcher, was born in Garber, Oklahoma.

May 9, 1934, began a strong two-day dust storm which removed huge amounts of Great Plains topsoil in one of the worst such storms of the Dust Bowl. The dust clouds blew all the way to Chicago where dirt fell like snow. Two days later, the same storm reached cities in the east, such as Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, D.C. That winter (1934–1935), red snow fell on New England.

On April 14, 1935, known as "Black Sunday", twenty of the worst "Black Blizzards" or dust storms in history occurred throughout the Dust Bowl region, causing extensive damage and turning the day to night; witnesses reported that they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points.

It was the years of the great Dust Bowl in the United States. Many people were fleeing the famine and the dusty and parched lands of the greater Midwest. The dust bowl stretched from up by the great lakes in the north to down into Texas. It spanned from Colorado in the west to Missouri in the east. Billions of tons of dirt and sand were moved around the world during the years from approximately 1930 to 1936 with some areas holding out till about 1940. Most of this soil blew into the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

In this fine silica dust was sand which is called Silica or (silicon dioxide, or SiO2), usually in the form of quartz. It was this sandy quartz dust which played such a havoc with the lives of untold thousands of people in the United States in the 1930’s.

We now know that we must wear respiratory protection to avoid breathing this fine silica dust. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) for silica sand state that "excessive inhalation of crystalline silica is a serious health concern".

If one breathes this dust it is possible to develop a condition now known as "silicosis" or Potter’s Rot and thousands of men, women, and children died and suffered long term medical problems associated with breathing the crystalline silica dust. Silicosis cases date to ancient Greeks and Romans. Agricola, in the mid-16th century, wrote about lung problems from dust inhalation in miners. Later, stone cutters, then sandblasters were seen to have this problem.

This problem is now a form of occupational lung disease marked by inflammation and scarring with forms of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. It is a type of pneumoconiosis with restrictive lung usage and honeycombing of the lung tissue. Silicosis (particularly the acute form) is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin) and can result in death, especially in children.

For my mother, while she was one of the lucky children who survived the dusty conditions and immediate death, but all this dust caused a problem that went unnoticed until she was in her 20’s when they were seen on X-rays. Even then, the doctors didn’t know what these white patches on her lungs were. However, in 1954 she began coughing up bits of blood and the doctors could not figure out what was causing it. This continued on and off till one day in 1966. After a bout with the flu and pneumonia all this changed when my mother started coughing up blood once again. These white patches had developed long spikes and were perforating her lungs. The doctors had no choice but to go in and remove her upper left lobe of her lung.

All that time, doctors could offer no explanation of how she developed these crystalline structures in her lungs. No one ever put 2 and 2 together until 2008 when I was watching a show on TV called “The Black Blizzard”, about the dust bowl. It was only during the viewing of this program that we suddenly were able to correctly “diagnose” my mothers root cause of her lung condition after approximately 74 years. How many other people died or suffered long term conditions due to the dust bowl will never be known, but for us this was a true revelation. This was no genetic illness, there was an external cause.

If you or someone you love has ever suffered from some unexplained lung condition such as this you may need to review their life history to correctly find a diagnosis.

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    • frogyfish profile image

      frogyfish 3 years ago from Central United States of America

      Interesting hub, and amazing that the diagnosis was found - and how many other unusual findings might occur this way. My families lived in KS, OK, NM, AZ and many had lung disease, some of which might have been actually related to those dusty times. Thank you for an eye-opening article.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Well researched and greatly interesting hub. We all forget that times have been so bad in the past.


    • Ca French profile image

      Ca French 6 years ago

      Remember that gypsum has the sulfate ion (anion) in it and can break down to create several sulfate chemicals and even hydrogen sulfide under certain conditions. Little particle of gypsum could create these sulfur-based compounds to eat into the lungs tissues also!

    • profile image

      Catherine French 6 years ago

      Don't forget that there was also calcium carbonates and gypsum deposits in eastern NM, west Texas, eastern CO, and parts of western OK that also contributed to the mineral loads. My mother also was born in 1933 in central Kansas and suffered from bronchitis and TB as a kid, and then later had some bad lung diseases, such as bronchiectatis. One lobe from each side of her lungs were removed, but she still had to lay on a decline each morning and cough up any residue in the lungs to make sure she did not get a bad infection. She ultimately died at age 66 from lung failure, and during the post-mortem they found the lungs had tried to regrow in the exacuated area, along with new types of bacteria never seen before. I bet the silica and calcium carbonate and gypsum added to her illnesses.

    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 6 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      Thank you for this. I have never before heard of such happenings this is truly amazing to read and learn.