Los Angeles Times

Tijuana sewage in the waves — and the air

- BY JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

SAN DIEGO — Sewage pollution spilling over the border from Tijuana into the San Diego region not only threatens the health of surfers and swimmers but potentiall­y those simply breathing the air.

That’s according to a study from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institutio­n of Oceanograp­hy published Thursday in the journal Environmen­tal Sciences & Technology, which found sewage-linked bacteria in sea-spray aerosols at Imperial Beach.

“Once pollutants become airborne, that just means so many more people can be exposed to those pollutants,” said Kim Prather, principal investigat­or on the study and director of the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environmen­t at Scripps. “It extends well beyond just people going to the beach or getting in the water.”

The potential health effects are still unknown, researcher­s say. Studies could eventually include an epidemiolo­gical investigat­ion.

Prather said her team plans to start swabbing lifeguards, surfers and others to gauge the extent of respirator­y exposure.

Researcher­s also hope to scrutinize hospital records and monitor indoor air quality.

“The bottom line is, we don’t know what the effect is yet of inhaling this cocktail that comes out of the ocean,” she said. “This is tip of the iceberg. We’re trying to keep everybody calm.”

The study took place after rainstorms in early 2019, with researcher­s taking air and water samples along the Tijuana River, Imperial Beach Pier and Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Using DNA sequencing, the team linked up to 76% of the airborne bacteria in Imperial Beach to the heavily polluted river.

A well-establishe­d body of research has found that microorgan­isms transfer from the ocean to the atmosphere, but this is the first study to link airborne bacteria to a known source of sewage, said co-author Robert Knight, a professor of pediatrics, computer science and engineerin­g at UC San Diego.

“It was a complete shock to find how much of microbes in the air were traceable back to sewage,” he said. “We had no idea that effect would be so strong. Now that we know this is a real phenomenon, we need to find out what are the impacts to human health.”

About $1.5 million has been secured by Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) in this year’s omnibus spending bill for Prather and her team to further investigat­e the public health ramificati­ons of airborne pollutants and potential pathogens, officials said.

Beaches as far north as Coronado were closed due to sewage pollution from Mexico at a record pace in 2022.

Imperial Beach, for example, had signs warning of sewage contaminat­ion along its beaches on 249 days last year. The Tijuana Sloughs, a once-coveted surfing spot at the mouth of the river, hasn’t been open since December 2021.

Swimming in sewage-tainted waters can expose beachgoers to dangerous bacteria and viruses, county public health officials say. Those who ignore the restrictio­ns could be at risk of diarrhea, fever, respirator­y disease and infections.

 ?? NELVIN C. CEPEDA San Diego Union-Tribune ?? RESEARCHER­S have found sewage-linked bacteria in sea-spray aerosols at San Diego’s Imperial Beach.
NELVIN C. CEPEDA San Diego Union-Tribune RESEARCHER­S have found sewage-linked bacteria in sea-spray aerosols at San Diego’s Imperial Beach.

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