From dust to dose: Effects of forest disturbance on increased inhalation exposure

Jeffrey J. Whicker, John E. Pinder, David D. Breshears, Craig F. Eberhart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Ecosystem disturbances that remove vegetation and disturb surface soils are major causes of excessive soil erosion and can result in accelerated transport of soils contaminated with hazardous materials. Accelerated wind erosion in disturbed lands that are contaminated is of particular concern because of potential increased inhalation exposure, yet measurements regarding these relationships are lacking. The importance of this was highlighted when, in May of 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned over roughly 30% of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), mostly in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest, and through areas with soils containing contaminants, particularly excess depleted and natural uranium. Additionally, post-fire thinning was performed in burned and unburned forests on about 25% of LANL land. The first goal of this study was to assess the potential for increased inhalation dose from uranium contaminated soils via wind-driven resuspension of soil following the Cerro Grande Fire and subsequent forest thinning. This was done through analysis of post-disturbance measurements of uranium air concentrations and their relationships with wind velocity and seasonal vegetation cover. We found a 14% average increase in uranium air concentrations at LANL perimeter locations after the fire, and the greatest air concentrations occurred during the months of April-June when wind velocities are highest, no snow cover, and low vegetation cover. The second goal was to develop a methodology to assess the relative contribution of each disturbance type towards increasing public and worker exposure to these resuspended soils. Measurements of wind-driven dust flux in severely burned, moderately burned, thinned, and unburned/unthinned forest areas were used to assess horizontal dust flux (HDF) in these areas. Using empirically derived relationships between measurements of HDF and respirible dust, coupled with onsite uranium soil concentrations, we estimate relative increases in inhalation doses for workers ranging from 15% to 38%. Despite the potential for increased doses resulting from these forest disturbances, the estimated annual dose rate for the public was < 1 μSv yr- 1, which is far below the dose limits for public exposures, and the upper-bound dose rate for a LANL worker was estimated to be 140 μSv yr- 1, far below the 5 × 104 μSv yr- 1 occupational dose limit. These results show the importance of ecosystem disturbance in increasing mobility of soil-bound contaminants, which can ultimately increase exposure. However, it is important to investigate the magnitude of the increases when deciding appropriate strategies for management and long-term stewardship of contaminated lands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-530
Number of pages12
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Sep 15 2006


  • Dust
  • Environmental contaminants
  • Environmental disturbance
  • Uranium
  • Wind erosion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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