When there’s a tough problem to solve, like Valley Fever, who you gonna call? The state is calling on a group of Arizona scientists who think of themselves as the “dust busters.”

They are one of five research teams from Arizona’s three universities who were awarded $11.9 million in grants for a pilot project from the Arizona Board of Regents. A portion of the sales taxes you paid at cash registers across the state will fund these ambitious science projects aimed at finding solutions to the state’s biggest, stickiest problems — including Valley Fever.

Valley Fever — a fungal infection transmitted by wind-blown dust — is one of the most commonly reported diseases in Arizona. There are more cases reported in Arizona than any other state.

John Galgiani is director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona. Cedit: UA.

“We should really be the right place to be doing something about this disease,” said John Galgiani, director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence at the University of Arizona, at a March regents committee meeting.

There are about 20,000 Valley Fever cases reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Galgiani said.

“Maricopa County is the source of one-half of all U.S. infections,” he said. “The state of Arizona, in general, is two-thirds of all U.S. infections.”

There aren’t currently any ways to cure or vaccinate people against the disease, which is caused by inhaling fungal spores that live in soil and travel on dust in the wind, Galgiani said. And dust problems are expected to grow as drought-related water restrictions in Maricopa and Pinal counties mean more agricultural fields are left unused. West Pinal County already doesn’t meet air quality standards for dust.

The team wants to address the disease at its source: Arizona soil.

“What we don’t know is where patients get infected, and what types of soil contain fungus, and how to keep the spores out of the air,” Galgiani said.

Regent Fred DuVal said the collaboration between scientists at Arizona’s three universities will put higher-education resources and tax dollars to work for the public.

“They are the world’s experts in this area,” DuVal said. “They are the folks that are excited about doing this … very important work for the state of Arizona.”

‘Public purpose-oriented investment’

The money backing the solutions-centered research is from Prop. 301 sales tax revenue. The measure was approved by Arizona voters in 2000, and extended in 2018, as a source of funding for education.

A portion of that money goes into the Arizona universities’ Technology and Research Initiative Fund. Right now, there’s a surplus in that fund because of an increase in sales-tax revenue in a growing economy, so the Arizona Board of Regents is investing it in the new Regents’ Grants program — a set of five pilot projects investigating ways to prevent Valley Fever, deal with polluted air and water and come up with new models for recycling.

It’s like a high-stakes science fair where the winners save lives and protect the environment.

When the regents came up with the idea of tasking some of Arizona’s top researchers with some of the state’s most vexing troubles, they went to Gov. Doug Ducey and his cabinet and asked for statements outlining the dilemmas.

State officials came back with 17 big problems. The regents chose to fund five. Then the universities asked Arizona scientists to propose projects to solve the issues and form collaborative teams.

“We are trying to address things that will improve their (Arizonans’) daily lives with the talent that these universities have on their faculty,” DuVal said. “This is public purpose-oriented investment.”

The studies center on health and the environment, mainly because those are the state departments that chose to participate in the process. DuVal said more department heads are already asking about getting involved next year. 

The universities hope that intensifying scientists’ focus on public projects will draw more research funding, stretching the impact of the Regents’ Grants in Arizona.

The ‘dust busters’ team wants to prevent Valley Fever

The so-called dust busters team includes scientists from all three state universities plus experts from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Health Services.

The Regents’ Grant for this project is $4.5 million over three years.

The collective will examine samples from patients, do DNA sequencing, and look at soil samples and air samples to learn where the spores might be found, Galgiani said. 

Bridget Barker is a geneticist, mycologist and health-equity researcher at Northern Arizona University. Credit: NAU.

Bridget Barker is a geneticist, mycologist and health-equity researcher at Northern Arizona University working with the team. She’s been studying Valley Fever for years.

For Barker, it’s personal. She suffered a case of Valley Fever, as did her husband and her dog, according to a 2017 NAU Review article.

“Fungal diseases are really off the radar,” she said in the interview. “There’s not a lot of people working on it, so there’s a lot we don’t know.

“The big, overarching question that drives pretty much everything in my lab is what explains the variation in disease. Why do some people get really, really sick and other people seem to have no symptoms?”

The team will also test biotechnology that would allow farmers and other land managers to seal off hot spots by creating a crust on soil — something that already exists in pristine desert soil.

Ferran Garcia-Pichel is director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental & Applied Microbiomics at Arizona State University. Credit: ASU.

The crust would help maintain dust in fallow fields, preventing it from blowing in the wind, keeping it out of people’s lungs, and maybe even fertilizing the soil at the same time, said Ferran Garcia-Pichel, director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental & Applied Microbiomics at Arizona State University.

The team also hopes to map hot spots where the spores are located on land, which could help state agencies decide where the greatest intervention and public-health support is needed.

“We actually are very excited about the possibility that the … team may be able tell us exactly where these hot spots (are) for Valley Fever,” Garcia-Pichel said. “And the dust-buster team will be ready to go seal them off.”

Watch the Valley Fever team discuss their project

Four more seminal Arizona science projects funded with your tax dollars

Cutting air pollution

The project: Studying how ground-level ozone is produced in our desert environment to better understand how to control it and improve air quality. The team will track concentrations of ozone, model and predict emissions, identify effective control strategies, and develop potential incentives for people to take action to reduce air pollution. 

Why it matters: High levels of ground-level ozone affect Maricopa, Yuma and Pima Counties, leading to higher levels of lung diseases, among other health problems. The American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air report gives an ‘F’ grade to Maricopa, Pima, Pinal and Gila Counties because of high ozone. 

The team: Scientists from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University plus ADEQ experts.

The grant: $2.8 million over three years.

Cleaning up ‘forever chemicals’ from water

The project: Looking for less expensive ways to measure and remove PFAS “forever chemicals” using sensors and high-tech sponges to clean up polluted water. The team also wants to look for new firefighting foam chemicals, which is what PFAS are used for. 

Why it matters: “One drop of PFAS can contaminate 18 million gallons of groundwater,” the team said in a proposal. These chemicals “resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water” and “they do not break down in the environment,” leading to contamination. There is PFAS contamination around military bases in Yuma, Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Sierra Vista. See an interactive map of PFAS pollution sites.

The team: UA and NAU scientists.

The grant: $1.5 million over three years.

Limited pollution from abandoned mines

The project: ADEQ has asked the team for a comprehensive inventory of 200,000 abandoned mine features, such as tailing piles, and their potential hazards, including water pollution. They will put together all the information in one comprehensive database, including risk assessments and a visualization tool. They also will provide options for managing the risks.

Why it matters: After more than 150 years of mining in Arizona, there is no one dataset of abandoned mines and their risks to the environment, according to another project proposal.

The team: Specialists from all three universities in engineering, biology, geology and more.

The grant: $1.5 million over three years.

Helping small cities and towns continue recycling

The project: A feasibility study to help small cities and towns in Arizona find affordable and viable options for recycling programs.

Why it matters: China stopped buying plastics in 2018, and now cities — especially smaller municipalities with fewer resources — find it challenging to afford recycling programs and keep plastics out of landfills.

The team: Experts from ASU and NAU.

The grant: $1.6 million over three years.

Learn more about how the Arizona Board of Regents manages the Technology and Research Initiative Fund.

Becky Pallack

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.