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The presence of heavy metals and E coli in raw sewage at the border between the United States and Mexico is being described as a significant threat to public health.
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The presence of heavy metals and E coli in raw sewage at the border between the United States and Mexico is being described as a significant threat to public health.

A report published this week revealed that the presence of untreated sewage and contaminated water in the Tijuana River is putting the communities along the US-Mexico border at risk of exposure to harmful pathogens and toxic substances.

According to a report published by public health researchers at San Diego State University, a large amount of sewage containing harmful chemicals such as arsenic, viruses, bacteria, and parasites flows through a river that runs from Mexico to California and eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean.

The experts have labeled the issue as an urgent public health emergency.

The discharge of sewage into the ocean has led to over 700 back-to-back days of beach closures in San Diego county. However, the negative effects are not limited to the water. Harmful substances and disease-causing organisms found in the sewage have also been found in the nearby air and soil, putting even those who reside far from the water at risk.

For many years, communities on either side of the border have been expressing concerns about this pollution. They have complained about the constant unpleasant smell in the air and have been advocating for improved wastewater systems. In recent years, severe storms, worsened by the climate emergency, have added more strain on already struggling sewage systems, leading to greater health hazards.

According to Paula Stigler Granados, an associate professor at San Diego State University’s School of Public Health and the lead author of the paper, this is not a small amount of contamination but rather a significant level of contamination that has persisted for a prolonged period of time.

The report confirms the long-standing frustration and fear of the residents of Imperial Beach, a town located north of the Mexican border, regarding the ongoing sewage issue.

Unfortunately, Imperial Beach is the prime example of an environmental injustice, according to Mayor Paloma Aguirre.

Imperial Beach, California, has been on the forefront of the sewage contamination issues.

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Before becoming mayor in 2022, Aguirre was a surfer and dedicated advocate for coastal conservation. She spent almost 20 years working towards resolving the pollution issues at Imperial Beach.

According to her, the matter was made more difficult due to its crossing of the country’s border, which necessitated collaboration between the US and Mexican administrations. In January, Mexico began construction on a modern sewage treatment plant to replace an obsolete one located in Punta Bandera, six miles from the border.

In 2020, the US government authorized a $300 million budget to enhance a sewage treatment facility in San Ysidro, located north of the border. However, a government memo obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in the previous year revealed that the plant was in a state of disrepair, with half of the funds needed solely for maintaining the current infrastructure.

Aguirre, along with other local leaders and supporters, has been advocating for an extra $310 million from the federal government to enhance wastewater treatment capabilities. This request was included in an emergency funding proposal by Joe Biden in October, but it still needs approval from Congress. Both California Governor Gavin Newsom and Congressman Scott Peters, whose district includes Imperial Beach, have also emphasized the need for immediate action.

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According to Aguirre, this problem has never received as much focus as it has in the last 12 months. However, he believes that it is still not sufficient.

This week’s report was commissioned in part to help bolster officials’ requests for more resources. To create it, Granados and her colleagues reviewed more than 60 studies and reports to present an overview of the public health and environmental risks of urban runoff and sewage in the region, at the request of Peters and the Conrad Prebys Foundation, a local charitable organisation.

The report discusses various potential dangers associated with sewage overflows, such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of E coli and legionella. According to the report, these overflows may also contain diseases that have nearly been eliminated in the United States, such as tuberculosis. Additionally, researchers have discovered the presence of harmful chemicals, including banned pesticides like DDT and heavy metals, which likely originated from industrial waste runoff in urban areas that makes its way into the river. These pollutants can also become airborne through splashing waves, potentially spreading pathogens and chemicals throughout the surrounding region.

The sewage presents a serious danger to the nearby ecosystems. The scientists refer to a recent incident where bottlenose dolphins were stranded in San Diego and discovered to have died from sepsis caused by a bacteria commonly spread through contact with feces or urine.

Many aspects of the crisis are still unknown to researchers, such as the impact of prolonged exposure to different pollutants, bacteria, and pathogens on human health. However, the researchers emphasized the urgency for investments in infrastructure and public health resources.

According to Aguirre, living in this area has impacted everyone in some way. She herself has had to seek urgent medical care multiple times due to contracting various illnesses, such as viral pharyngitis, from being near the water. This has unfortunately become a regular occurrence in our lives, but it should never be accepted as normal for anyone.

Source: theguardian.com