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Study: Toxic Elements Around Salton Sea Could Adversely Affect Nearby Residents

Farming is a major economic driver in the Imperial Valley and it will continu...

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: Farming is a major economic driver in the Imperial Valley and it will continue to provide water for the Salton Sea. However, the amount of water flushed off farm fields is not nearly enough to keep the current lake level stable.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

More than dust-filled air could be plaguing residents around the quickly evaporating Salton Sea in Imperial Valley. University of California, Riverside research shows toxic aerosols could also be filling the air.

The problem has to do with runoff from the Colorado River entering Imperial Valley and going into the wetland areas around the Salton Sea. That runoff is high in selenium. UC Riverside toxicologist Sabbir Ahmed and first-author on the study says selenium is necessary for human body health, but not in excessive doses.

Ahmed said plants in the area digest this mineral and release into the air as an aerosol, which is air filled with liquid or solid particles. It’s already known this soil and aerosols produced from it are toxic for birds and fish, but now this study shows they’re also toxic for humans.

RELATED: Project Takes Aim At Controlling Salton Sea Dust

Reported by Shalina Chatlani , Video by Andi Dukleth

“Selenium is an element essential for human health … (but) if you take too much selenium it can be bad for your health. It can cause hair loss, garlic breath and gastrointestinal problems,” Ahmed said.

“We fed the selenium-containing aerosol to the human lung cell," Ahmed said. "Eventually, we found it could lead to the airway inflammation, lung cancer, eventually Type 2 diabetes, this kind of stuff.”

Ahmed said this preliminary study shows there needs to be more research on the soils around the Salton Sea and how it could be affecting the population. He also says other studies suggest agricultural fertilizers are high in selenium, so there has to be more research on how the element affects agricultural communities.

“People living near the Salton Sea are getting exposed and maybe future study can find a correlation between the rates of asthma in the area and the allergic inflammation (in lung cells) we found in our study,” Ahmed said.

RELATED: Imperial County Declares Emergency At Salton Sea

The Imperial Valley region surrounding the sea has some of the highest asthma rates, particularly for children.

Luis Olmedo, the executive director for the Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice organization in Imperial Valley, said the area has long faced health problems related to air pollutants.

“We’ve known that the byproducts of the agriculture industry end up in the Salton Sea. I don’t know if there was enough of a look into the future to see if this would be sustainable,” Olmedo said. “What we’re seeing in these research studies is what we’ve always known, but the burden of proof is always on the population. In this case, we live in an area where the majority of people are living at a disadvantage.”

People in nearby San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties are likely not going to be exposed to these aerosols, UC Riverside associate professor of atmospheric science Roya Bahreini said.

“Typically, the air masses from the Salton Sea area don’t reach these cities,” she said.

Bahreini said dangerous aerosols can be formed anywhere there’s excessive selenium in the soil. Agricultural workers and communities living close to contaminated areas are more likely to be exposed.

Editors Note: This article has been updated to correctly report that runoff from the Colorado river carries selenium. A previous version mentions fertilizer, due to misleading information from UC Riverside researchers.

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Photo of Shalina Chatlani

Shalina Chatlani
Science and Technology Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover all things science and technology — from the biotech industry in San Diego to rooftop solar energy on new homes. I'm interested in covering the human side of science and technology, like barriers to entry for people of color or gender equity issues on biotech boards.

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