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SDSU report calls Tijuana River contamination a public health crisis. 'We know people are getting sick.'

San Diego Union-Tribune - 2/13/2024

A new report released Tuesday and written by researchers at San Diego State University calls the Tijuana River a "public health crisis," citing broad evidence of unhealthy conditions from untreated sewage to industrial waste.

Authors synthesize multiple studies that have documented pollution over the years, leading with a recent paper that documented that the threat also extends to ocean-going mammals. Bottle nose dolphins stranded in San Diego died from infection by a bacteria "generally transmitted through contact with feces or urine in contaminated water, food or soil."

The document is not peer-reviewed research, but rather a white paper designed to help make the argument that more should be done to address long-standing environmental concerns that are exacerbated every time it rains.

Use of the words "public health crisis" conjure images of health effects on a broad scale. However, the county public health department and its leader, Dr. Wilma Wooten, have said that while they are studying reports of increased gastrointestinal illness from a South Bay medical provider, recent rains have not so far produced a broad surge of illness detectable in emergency departments. Testing has long confirmed that the river's water is toxic, contributing to constant beach closures that severely impact the beach economy throughout the South Bay.

SDSU environmental health professor Paula Stigler Granados and others who spoke during a news conference on the report Tuesday morning said that calling the situation in and around the Tijuana River a public health crisis refers to the cumulative risk of health problems caused by the presence of pollutants rather than the observation of increases in observed illness.

"For this report, we did not look at the health data; that is not what we were asked to do," Stigler Granados said. "We are aggregating the current research that's out there on what our area of expertise is, which is in environmental health risk exposures.

"Criteria for calling this a public health crisis really sets upon this idea that there is an exposure risk, because of the vast amount of contamination that is occurring; it is elevating the risk, and that the potential for those exposures is highly elevated because (of) just the sheer amounts of contamination."

Rep. Scott Peters called the distinction academic. Noting that there have been many anecdotal reports of vomiting and diarrhea from those who live and work closest to the river, the congressman said now is not the time to mince words.

"We don't have the luxury to wait around ... we have to treat it like it is a crisis," Peters said. "It's hard to find anyplace else in the country where this kind of thing is happening, so for my purposes, it is a crisis."

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre echoed that sentiment, recounting the calls she has received from citizens who have experienced symptoms after heavy rains, especially following tropical storm Hillary in 2023.

"We had residents approach us and tell us, 'I was hospitalized for four days,' right? Aguirre said. "I think that this represents, maybe, an opportunity to close that gap with the methodology that is being used to declare it or not declare it a public health crisis."

Funded by San Diego'sPrebys Foundation, the paper is clearly constructed to make a case not just in San Diego County or Southern California, but even more so in Washington, where the region's delegation of leaders are pressing for an additional appropriation of $310 million on top of the $350 million already allocated to repair and expand the federal wastewater treatment plant that has been overtaxed treating Tijuana River flows.

"We really need to get Congress to approve this money, so it's important to gather evidence that really drives home the severity of this problem," Peters said. "We know people are getting sick.

"We know Navy Seals have had to cancel training sessions due to contaminated water; we've seen news reports showing rivers of raw sewage flowing into the Pacific Ocean."

The white paper pulls together the many sources of information on the festering situation at the border, noting that a graduate student study analysis last year of river water at the border detected the presence of 392 organic chemical contaminants, 175 which "appeared in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies Toxic Substance Control Act." Other studies have shown the presence of drug-resistant bacteria and even pesticides such as DDT that are banned in the United States.

Contaminated air from the region, researchers found, could potentially "increase the health risks of local community members without any direct water contact," a statement that references the potential aerosolization of polluted water in sea spray, a possibility documented by UC San Diego biochemist Kim Prather in 2023.

Researchers call for better monitoring of environmental contaminants and a deeper investigation of "nearby community exposures and health effects," including investments "by Congress and federal and state agencies " to "slow and prevent the ongoing and egregious contamination" and also to assess local environmental harm.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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