Toxic Border Pollution Sickens U.S. Border Patrol Agents
By Adam Hammell & Dana Williams
The pungent, salty air that emerged over South Bay communities last February was not a familiar whiff of wrack decomposing on our favorite beaches. In fact, it was the estimated 143 million gallons of raw sewage that raced down the rugged canyons of Tijuana, funneling directly through the mouth of the Tijuana River into the Pacific Ocean. Beachgoers, visitors, and residents of San Diego County have suffered the devastating effects of these spills for decades—yet little has been done to remedy the origins.
The perpetual disaster has direct, negative consequences on our local economy, tourism, marine life and growing public health concerns for residents of San Diego County. A problem that has remained dormant for many years has come into the spotlight in recent months due to the direct effect it is having on U.S. Border Patrol agents and, consequently, our national security.
A trip to the Tijuana River Valley with public lands liaison agent Amber Craig, supervisory border patrol agent Bill Rogers and Chris Harris, the secretary and director of Legislative & Political Affairs for the National Border Patrol Council, was indicative of the devastation to the area. Conditions were far less than ideal for the agents working in the Tijuana River Valley—and even worse for those without homes living amidst the sewage and rubbish on either side of the border. Nauseated daily by foul smells and constant exposure to toxins, metals, and raw sewage, many border patrol agents have been concerned about long-term health complications. In fact, some agents are keeping daily health records to document their respiration disturbances and rashes. Even cases of Hepatitis A, MRSA, and flesh-eating bacteria have been linked to exposure in the South Bay.
Former Border Patrol agent Joshua Wiley recalls symptoms of the necrotizing fasciitis—a flesh eating bacteria— he contracted in 2010 from the contaminated waters off of Coronado during training.
In fact, Joshua Willey, former Border Patrol agent, was permanently disabled due to a flesh-eating bacteria he contracted in April 2010, while training in the waters off Coronado after a heavy rain. At the time, Joshua assumed that he had an overuse injury due to rigorous physical training. Perseverance and determination kept Willey from being sent home, since this type of training was meant to clear some agents out. By day 11 of a 30-day intensive academy, Willey said "the pain got worse and started spreading down into my arm, and down in my chest area. I woke up in the barracks confused, with night sweats, the shakes, and didn't feel right." The next day, Willey was sent home and went straight to bed. He woke up later that night to use the bathroom and ended up on his floor—after suffering a febrile seizure. He was transported, by ambulance, to the hospital, where he recalled his arm swelling to "the size of a volleyball." Doctors told his family that his arm may have to be amputated, but that fortunately was avoided after a successful emergency surgery. After his operation, and a series of blood tests, it was revealed that he contracted necrotizing fasciitis—a flesh eating bacteria—from the contaminated waters off of Coronado.
Fenced border in Goat Canyon, where cross-border stormwater and sewage runoff collect on U.S. soil. Agents are required to physically check the gates, regardless of the presence or depth of contaminated water.
Border Patrol agents have taken precaution in some areas along the international border. "Many of the agents are told not to bring their boots and gear home." Said Craig. This is an effort to mitigate the possibilities of exposure to the families of the agents. At times, agents now wear face masks and gloves to protect themselves from the exposure to the hazardous waste. Craig noted that holes have burned through the soles of agents' boots and gloves in recent months, and agents are breaking out in rashes. "Whatever is in the water is damaging and eating away at our agents' boots. There appears to be chemicals or something in the wastewater."
U.S. Border Patrol agent shows a rash expected to be from contaminated water exposure.
Water quality testing commissioned by U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Division measures the level of fecal contamination in the wastewater that agents come in direct contact with, and the results are horrific. The Tijuana River bacteriological results from May 2018 (below) indicate levels of fecal indicator bacteria, E. coli, and fecal coliform that are literally thousands of times higher than national recreational exposure standards.
|Tijuana River Fecal Bateria Study Results, May 1, 2018|
|Station||E. coli (MPN/100 mL)||Total Coliform (MPN/100 mL)|
|Public health standard||235||10,000|
Water quality test results from May 1, 2018, provided by the Public Lands Liaison of the US Border Patrol, San Diego Sector.
Border Patrol agents knew the potential threats and inherent risks of guarding our country's Southern Border when signing up for training. "We could be shot at, get into a high speed chase, but didn't really sign up to be at risk from raw sewage." Noted Craig, With the warmer, summer months approaching, more threats to the agents are going to be lurking in the lowlands of the Tijuana River Valley. Mosquitoes spawning in this sewage present considerable health suspicions to Customs Border Patrol and the Public Health of San Diego County and beyond, as mosquito-transmitted viruses include West Nile, yellow fever, dengue and Zika.
Trash and debris collect at a border fence.
In addition to the health risks of contaminated water exposure, trash and debris wash down the Tijuana canyons during storm events, causing these streams to send sewage, chemicals, and solid waste into the marine environment. Gates and border walls can act as collection points for trash. To prevent flooding, agents are forced to open the gates of these collectors when it rains, leaving the busiest international border access in the world open to possible dangers and risks.
Hilly topography surrounding the Tijuana Rivery Valley form multiple stormwater and debris collection areas that eventually flow across the border.
Many residents, especially those in the South Bay communities, are longing for a solution to this enduring problem. Amber Craig, who has been with U.S.C.B.P for two decades, says that spills have been an issue for as long as she has been there. I asked her about a possible solution, since she is an expert on the crisis:
"All we can do is put a Band-Aid on it. The real problem is there is not a Band-Aid big enough. These problems keep getting bigger and bigger. It is going to have to happen at very high levels of government."
On May 15, Surfrider Foundation San Diego sent the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) a Notice of Intent to Sue for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) is the federal agency with the jurisdiction over transboundary flows of waste. Lack of foresight, management, leadership, priority and diplomacy has resulted in an IBWC that has not been proactive. Their stance is "we cannot do anything about it." However, they have also not yet considered the options or costs involved in mitigating contaminants that cross the border, or cleaning up when they happen. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching a diagnostic of possible solutions as a result of the February 2017 spill that should be completed by November. However, the IBWC should have been engaging in these sorts of diagnostics for the last decade.
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By Jason Bruck
Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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