100 Billion Gallons of Toxic Sewage Creating a 'Public Health Crisis' at the US-Mexico Border

February 21, 2024 - Reading time: 3 minutes

The escalating crisis at the US-Mexico border, characterised by the discharge of over 100 billion gallons of toxic sewage into San Diego, California, from Mexico, highlights a severe public health emergency. 

This situation is not just an environmental catastrophe but a dire public health threat, with the Tijuana River, a 120-mile long waterway flowing from Mexico into California, at the epicenter of this crisis. Classified as an impaired water body under the U.S. Clean Water Act, the river's contamination impacts the coastal areas of Imperial Beach, San Ysidro, and Coronado, raising alarm among local residents and authorities alike.

Imperial Beach Mayor Paloma Aguirre's statement to ABC News underscores the gravity of the situation, calling it a "public health ticking time bomb" and deeming South San Diego County in a "total state of emergency" due to transboundary pollution. "Living in these conditions is unacceptable in our nation," Aguirre asserts, voicing the distress of the community over the prolonged exposure to hazardous waste.

A comprehensive report by San Diego State University's (SDSU) School of Public Health declares the cross-border contamination a "public health crisis," citing inadequate current regulation and monitoring measures. The report reveals alarming findings, including the presence of dangerous viruses and bacteria in the Tijuana River and Estuary, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and Legionella bacteria, posing significant health risks to nearby populations.

The International Boundary and Water Commission's data on the flow of untreated sewage, industrial waste, and urban runoff into the Tijuana River over the last five years paints a bleak picture of the environmental degradation and its repercussions. Residents near the affected areas face heightened risks, with children, seniors, and at-risk populations particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of exposure to the contaminants.

Local residents express their frustrations and fears, emphasizing the immediate need for action. "Every day we see the river, it's a reminder of the neglect we've suffered. It's not just the smell; it's knowing that our health is at risk every moment," shares Maria Gonzalez, a long-time resident of Imperial Beach.

The urgency for intervention is echoed by healthcare professionals witnessing the health impacts firsthand. Drs. Kimberly and Matt Dickson, who run a local urgent care, report a significant spike in gastrointestinal illnesses during heavy rains, attributing these to the spread of sewage-contaminated water into the community. "The link between sewage exposure and illness is clear. We need infrastructure improvements to prevent this," Dr. Matt Dickson stresses.

Despite the allocation of a $300 million fund by Congress in 2020 for the expansion of the International Wastewater Treatment Plant in San Ysidro, the devastation caused by Hurricane Hilary in August 2023 and subsequent storms have diverted much-needed funds to deferred maintenance, delaying critical expansions. The call for an additional $310 million in federal funds to address the issue remains pending, highlighting the challenges in garnering adequate attention and resources for this emergency from afar.

As this crisis unfolds, the call for immediate and robust intervention grows louder, with residents, officials, and experts urging for decisive action to mitigate the environmental and public health impacts of this longstanding issue. The situation at the US-Mexico border serves as a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of environmental health and public safety, demanding a concerted effort to address the root causes of this toxic sewage spill and protect the well-being of affected communities.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.