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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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