Last week, the state of California declared a drought emergency, citing the driest year on record and water reserves that are at about 20% of normal. The US Department of Agriculture also designated portions of 10 other states as disaster areas because of drought. And there is little rain in the forecast.
In addition to the other problems it brings, drought increases the presence of airborne dust, and residents of some of the hardest-hit areas may have another problem to worry about as a result. This article relates the story of a 1977 drought in California, accompanied by strong winds in December through the central part of the state. In the weeks that followed, more than 100 cases of valley fever—including six deaths—were reported (up from an average of only six cases a year).
Valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, is caused by breathing in the spores of a fungus found in the soil throughout the southwestern US and elsewhere. Many people who are infected never even have symptoms, and others mistake it for a case of the flu, but for a few unlucky people it can cause serious and lasting problems. The disease has been on the rise in the US for the last 15 years or so, possibly as a result of dry conditions combined with earthmoving activities in the regions where the spores are found.
The article documents soil testing efforts for the fungus, and the potential implications not only for people who live and work in the affected areas (especially people in occupations that require them to be outdoors much of the time), but also for property owners—say, a homeowner who’s trying to sell in an area where soil tests for the fungus have been positive. It also discusses attempts to actually demonstrate a connection between activities like construction or drilling and increased incidence of the disease, as well as efforts—so far unsuccessful—to develop a vaccine.