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New reports highlight public health crisis in border waters and inequities in San Diego

 February 21, 2024 at 4:53 PM PST

S1: Welcome in San Diego , it's Jade Hindman. The common thread in today's conversation is equity. From pollution in Imperial Beach to disparities in food access across the county. We're looking at recent reports on how to fix the issues. This is Midday Edition connecting our communities through conversation. Concerns surrounding contaminated water along the Tijuana River valley and South Bay coastal waters aren't new. Putting all of the research , though , to support this issue into one concise document is. But San Diego State University researchers have done just that. In a new report released last week , they analyzed more than 60 studies to provide a pointed understanding of the problem. Simply put , water contamination along the Tijuana River and into the sea also affects the surrounding air and soil so much it's caused a public health crisis. Here to tell us more on this and their philosophy on how to fix it is Paula Stigler. Granados. She is one of the report's lead authors and is an associate professor at San Diego State University's School of Public Health. Professor. Stigler Granados , welcome to Midday Edition.

S2: Thank you. Happy to be here.

S1: So glad to have you here. So tell me about this report and how it differs from previous studies.

S2: This report is not new data , but it was asked to be done on behalf of Congressman Scott Peters , who requested a report to be done. Looking at previous research on this topic and looking at what are the potential risks to public health coming from this cross border contamination that's been going on for what seems like decades now. So this report compiled all the different data that's been coming out over the last ten years or so. Looking at contamination , what's in the contamination , what's in the air , what's in the soil , what's in the water ? And just compiled it into a single report and talked about some of the risks associated with exposure to some of these contaminants. Yeah.

S1: And this is not new information.


S1: And you know , when we think about coastal pollution , a lot of times we think of surfers who may be in the ocean on a daily basis , but this study shows the public health impacts actually go far beyond just surfers. Absolutely.

S2: Absolutely. There are other people that are exposed to these contaminants. There's occupational health risks. We have lifeguards. We have Navy personnel , we have Border Patrol agents. We also have people that just live and work near this environment along the coast , along the beach , beachfront , you know , businesses , etc. all of these people are potentially at risk if they come into contact , come into contact with this contaminated water. Or as we were seeing in some of the reports of most recent data coming out , it's the potential for it to become aerosolized and people to be possibly breathing it in. Hmm.

S1: Hmm. Can you explain a bit about how the water along the border coastal region gets contaminated from these cross-border sewage flows ? Absolutely.

S2: And just to clarify , it's not just sewage that we look at. It's also urban runoff. So whenever we have these large rain events like we're having today , this runoff all over the city streets , across the border and on our side of the border , everything sort of runs into these canals and tributaries and the river that makes it out into the estuary and out into the ocean. So it's not just the sewage that the wastewater treatment plants capacity are unable to handle , but it's all the other stuff too that comes along with that. And that's toxic chemicals. It's also the sewage , and it's just what we like to call sometimes urban drool. It's all that stuff that gets washed off and comes out into the same spot and just contributes to all of this cross-border contamination.

S1: And you mentioned the rainstorms. We're seeing more of these atmospheric rivers.

S2: That's very common because of all the runoff that happens not just at the border , but along all of our , you know , tributaries and creeks running into the ocean across the coastline. But when you have these large amounts of water coming in , these large floods , basically the wastewater treatment plants , they're not able to handle the capacity. They overflow. This is what comes out into the ocean. Therefore , really , the more rain events we have , the more contamination we have , the more water flow we have , the more risks we have.


S2: We've seen everything that you would expect. To find in wastewater , including antibiotic antibiotic resistant genes and microbes pathogens. But we're also seeing chemicals and contaminants that we might not necessarily normally look for. That's what some of this research is doing , is finding some of these exposure risks go beyond just E.coli or Enterococcus , which is what we normally look for. But we're looking at , you know , legionella , salmonella , vibrio , all the different things that you might find in wastewater we're finding in these water samples. So that direct recreational contact is something that we think is probably the highest risk. What we don't know is how much of those chemicals or pathogens are becoming aerosolized. There was a recent report that came out of UCSD scientists showing that there was aerosol transmission of these particles , and that potential is there. What we don't know is how much risk there is , and this is where we need to do further research. Mhm.

S1: Mhm. And I don't know if this is in the wheelhouse either. But I'm curious you know as our temperatures warm up as , as the ocean water gets warmer. Does that impact how many pathogens are in the water.

S2: That's a great question. I don't have the answer to that. But we do know climate change. We are concerned about additional rainfall events. We had the hurricane Hilary , you know , first hurricane we've had here in a long time. So the potential for these warmer conditions , climate change , El Nino that were happening right now , there's always a potential for these increased rain events. And addition to that , the warmer waters could absolutely create a better environment for some of these pathogens and bacteria to thrive. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. You know , the problem of contaminated water along the border is not a new problem. As as we talked about earlier , what what makes this research important in discussions on this problem , that.

S2: This culminates into a report where we're pulling together all the different research from all the different research scientists that have done this work , and then also comparing it to research done in other parts of the world where they've done similar science on similar pathogens and similar transports of these chemicals and pathogens. And we're bringing it to a topic to elevate the awareness around the mass amount of contamination that has continued to happen on a daily basis , and how big of a problem it really is. It doesn't seem to always get enough attention because it's been going on for so long. But again , as we're seeing more and more rain events , we're seeing more and more pollution coming out. It's reaching a really critical place right now where we need to make these transborder contamination flows stop.


S2: Obviously , if you're immunocompromised or you have concerns about your health , you want to limit your exposures to just about anything that might make you sick. So take that into consideration. Um , obviously consult with , you know , your doctor if you're not feeling well. And , you know , I wouldn't say I wouldn't not recommend going out and getting into our environment and being in this amazing outdoor environment that we live in here in San Diego. But limit exposures when possible if you're at higher risk for becoming ill.

S1: And you mentioned those who are immunocompromised , I mean , what populations are most vulnerable to this type of pollution ? Sure.

S2: Just like in public health , we always talk about populations that might be at higher risk for becoming ill from exposures. And we we talk about children. We talk about older adults. We also talk about pregnant women or anybody that's immunocompromised. Those are always the general audience of people we talk about that might be at higher risk. And to be cautious about what you're coming into contact with.

S1: And this study was released last week.

S2: I think that there's a lot of communication now about what constitutes a public health crisis. What constitutes a high risk , what does that look like ? This report was by no means meant to instill panic in anyone. I think people who live in the region have been living with this , unfortunately for a really long time , but it's to really just elevate the fact that this is something that's been going on for long enough , that is causing enough problems , that we absolutely must be looking at it , and we have to look at it deeper and collaborate together on this across both sides of the border , and with different government agencies and different organizations that are working on this issue coming together to address it.

S1: And still , though , this is a serious public health concern.

S2: This to stop. It's not just about the public health risk , but it's also just about protecting our environment , our economy , not having our beaches closed , where one of the most beautiful destination places in the country. And to have our beaches closed because of contamination is just really sad. So I do have hope that our decision makers , our leaders are , um , local organizations and advocates and government will come together to help address this issue. And the more we talk about it , I think the more we realize that we all have the same common goal , which is to slow down or stop that pollution and to protect people's health and our environment.


S2: You know , would this type of pollution or contamination be met with a similar disregard or a lack of awareness about it ? If it were in a place like , say , La Jolla Shores , would that be tolerated ? We don't really think that it would receive , um , we think it would probably receive a little bit more attention than it is. And so our communities of San Ysidro and Imperial Beach , you know , they don't have as many resources as other communities. And so this becomes an environmental justice issue for these communities as well.

S1: What do you see as the biggest challenge to getting the resources to fix this problem ? Because awareness is one thing. Um , getting the resources is another. Funding.

S2: Funding. Funding is the biggest issue. It takes a lot of money to repair this infrastructure and to build up , you know , the surveillance systems that we need to make sure that people aren't getting sick and that this contamination doesn't continue. I really think it's going to be the decision makers working in DC and and California , Sacramento and here locally that are going to have to advocate for more funding to repair this aging infrastructure. Mhm.

S1: Mhm. Is there anything else that you'd like to mention that I didn't ask.

S2: I think it's important to note that this report did not look at health data. We aren't looking at whether there's increased cases of illness or not. This really was just looking at the pollution , the contaminations and the potential pathways for people to be exposed. And it's supposed to really elevate this idea that this vast amount of contamination that's coming across and into our oceans and happening on such frequency , it is absolutely urgent that we take a look at what those risks might be and work together to stop it. So just kind of circling back and knowing that this wasn't a report about health data , but this was a report about pollution. We are exposure scientists. And I think that's what makes this the report really unique , is that we're really just looking at what is risk look like. And what we found was that there is some risk and that we need to be paying attention.


S2: Next , we are looking at taking a deeper dive at these aerosolized particles. We have some researchers here at San Diego State University. And I also know there's researchers at other universities locally that are looking at what is in the air that people might be breathing. How far does it travel ? Is it affecting people ? These are all questions.

S1: Professor Stigler , Granados , thank you so much for being here.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Coming up , San Diego County puts a microscope to disparities across the region.


S1: Welcome back. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , as you just heard in the previous segment , Professor Stigler , Granados underscored the inequities in federal government response to cross-border pollution. But federal government aside , local officials are looking at inequity across the region. Earlier this month , the San Diego Office of Equity and Racial Justice released the county's first Equity Indicators report , which identifies how racism and oppression are impacting San Diegans. The findings in the report are from a single point in time in 2021 , and it underscores stark disparities in housing , food access , jobs and much more. Here to talk about these findings and how this report may help create equity is Andrew Strong. He is the director of the Office of Equity and Racial Justice. Andrew , welcome back to midday. Hey.

S3: Hey. Thanks , Jade. Thanks for having me.

S1: Glad to have you here. So this report is part of an ongoing commitment that the county has. Tell me about that commitment. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. Um , and just like last time when we spoke , you know , the county really committed itself to leaning into what it means to have a lens of equity and racial justice across all the work that we do. And it started with that commitment of declaring racism a public health crisis and creating the office that I run right now. Um , but also just really leaning into the data analysis to show the need for the significant change. And these happen in our communities.

S1: So , you know , as you kind of said , you know , this report examines inequities. And like oftentimes when I hear people talk about that , they seem to have different definitions of the term. So how do you define inequity and what lens is this report looking through.

S3: So how I define well first I start defining equity as a whole. Right. Equity um to me really is looking at doing your level of analysis to see where people are situated in systems. Right ? And then thinking about who those people are that are within those systems , but also thinking about what they need to be successful in life and to thrive. Um , and some in some cases just to survive. So really taking a hard look at that through that lens , but it also means that you have to look at people. You have to look , you can't be colorblind , right ? You can't be blind to folks disabilities. You can't be blind to folks , uh , gender , uh , status. You can't be blind to any of those things because you have to have that deep understanding of who they are so you can figure out what those folks need. And that's essentially what equity is and what inequity is , is basically flipping that on his head and saying , okay , you know , we we know that black and brown folks suffer from some of the worst ills of our society. When you're talking about jobs , employment , when you're talking about finances , when you're talking about healthcare or living in food deserts. So what does that mean ? That means that their systems and structures and policies that have been put in place in some cases to intentionally do that. So seeing those inequities , you know , and knowing that those policies and systems are in place , you know , it's our social responsibility to figure out how do we address those. Right.

S1: Right. So the report looks across ten areas. What are those areas and why were they chosen.

S3: So it looks it looks across a ton of different areas. So everything from economic opportunity , education , health care , um health , access to crime and legal system. And the interesting part about how we chose those and we were very intentional about it , um , because , you know , this is not everything , right , that we started off with , actually 120 indicators and the way we started off with those indicators , because we had several community meetings over time , because we wanted to be very intentional about co-creating this report with the community. We wanted to find out what people wanted to see , what what do they want us to address , what do they see themselves in the system ? And we had several community meetings with with different random community folks in the community who were experiencing these ills of society to help us unpack , to see what is what is. So what are some of those areas that we need to focus on ? So we started off with 120 indicators. We narrowed them down through a process of of quality data analysis to see what data was out there , what data existed. Um , there's some indicators that folks wanted us to measure that we didn't , quite frankly , have any indicators for. Right. So we considered creating community surveys and things of that nature to come up with new indicators. But we finally settled on these 34 indicators across these ten themes.


S3: I think , um , those were the ones that really stood out when you talked about specifically our black and brown communities. And I think a significant that is Black History Month released this report. And knowing that , you know , this is a this is a time to reflect on our rich contributions of black folks in this , in this country , in this world. But it's also a time for us to recognize the continued battle against systemic inequities in all forms of racism. But you're thinking about the report data specifically. I mean , once that that really jumped off the page was , was the one around people of color and disabled folks and immigrants being more likely to be 200% below the federal poverty line. I mean , 200%. That is significant , especially if you're talking about San Diego County and just the cost of living , the cost of housing being 200% below the federal poverty line. And that just tells us how much work we have to do as a society to really lean into that. And our social responsibility as a county government , knowing we have an $8 billion budget and that money has to go somewhere , let's start putting that money into communities and to the folks who really need it.

S1: You mentioned education , and I want to unpack that a little bit. I mean , where do the disparities exist ? Is it in educational attainment ? Is it in resources available ? What areas are deeply impacted there.

S3: Specifically education. You know , we're talking about educational attainment , but we're also talking about opportunities with within the system to not be excluded from the system and be put in the school to prison pipeline. So we're talking about suspension rates , um , disparities among among our youth. I mean , and this is not a secret. We know that black or black and brown youth have the highest suspension rates in school. So , you know , if our kids are not in school , what are they out there doing ? Right ? They're out there getting in trouble. And if we don't have afterschool programs as a disparity in afterschool programs , specifically within our underserved communities. And so you're talking about from educational attainment , but all the way down to suspensions , um , which is really important to have opportunities for our youth to stay in school , but also to have opportunities to to have afterschool and before school programming for our youth.

S1: And of course , you mentioned disabled residents and or immigrants , 200% more likely to fall under poverty level than any other county residents.

S3: I think it looks like the disparities and and what you see in that system , I think it looks like , um , you know , when you think about what happened in the floods and you think about the most tragic impacts of the recent floods happened to our most underserved communities. I know those folks in that population in that area specifically , some of those folks are living below the poverty line. Um , and a majority of folks in our underserved communities are black and brown folks. And , and that's where you see it show up. And then the other piece of that is our report also talks about the lack of of grocery stores in certain communities , right , and the need to have healthy foods. And that is a direct impact of folks living in those communities , not having the investments from government , not having the investment from from the taxes that they're paying into those communities , and not having the grocery stores and not having what they need to to just survive in some of our most underserved communities.

S1: So so there's more intention behind that disparity ? Absolutely.

S4: Yeah.

S1: Yeah. So when we're talking about food access , then I want to dig into that more. The race and ethnicity disparities were so stark. Black people were three times as likely to be enrolled in Snap than white people in the county.

S3: And folks have an opportunity and having jobs and being able to pay for some of the things , the healthier foods. Right. And , and live in the areas where they can actually get those food , the food and what they need to survive. Um , I think it says speaks directly to that , the economic gap , but it also talks about the level of assistance that folks need. And I think , you know , recently there was a minimum income pilot that that one of our lessons was Jewish Family Services , um , led. And when you think about what folks need and how much money they need to survive in this region , and knowing the numbers that that we're talking about as far as a Snap program , black or African American people are more than three times as likely to be enrolled in Snap. What does that tell you that tells you that there's a significant gap there , right ? Those folks have a need. So so what does that mean for us not to just have those folks stay in the program , but to provide services and assistance for jobs , provide services and assistance to to help them start to build some type of generational wealth for themselves , not to just get out of that , they need to have the system , but to start really building generational wealth. And that is a totally different paradigm shift than I think we've had. And not just county government , but as a as , as a society. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Food access , you know , seems to also tie directly into health outcomes. So the report looked at that. What did you find there. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. And the health outcomes I think is something that's really significant. And that's um , you know , the good thing about the health outcomes is that we have a pretty robust , um , you know , led by Doctor Wilmer Wooten , Public Health Agency and health human services agency that really has a laser focus on. On these these types of health outcomes and thinking about , you know , folks life course framework I think. But but there's also disparities with that in that. Right. So you know , just because you know those numbers are increasing , it's still those disparities like low birth weight , for example , it's twice as common among births that Black or African American mothers compared to white mothers twice as common to have low birth weight. And what does that mean ? What does that impact on our youth ? And that you talking about developmental developmental disabilities that that show up just because folks say they have that low birth weight , they don't have the healthy food , right ? They don't have access to the health care that they need to thrive. Um , when you're talking about health insurance coverage , that's and that's another disparity is , is health insurance access. You know , if you don't have access to to go in and take care of yourself to have those those checkups , you know , black and African Americans were twice more likely compared to white residents not to have health insurance coverage.


S3: Um , but the inequities it gets exists when you think about specifically business ownership , right ? I mean , the , the black businesses that in San Diego County , you know , that they have the least number of businesses. And on top of it , they have if we have our own businesses , then we also are less likely to to have contracts and government contracts. And what does that mean ? I mean , that means basically , you know , you've had these long standing organizations who continue to get business , they continue to get contracts , and they also continue to hire their own people. Right. So what does that mean for us as an organization , not just a county , but to start really investing into the to those black and brown businesses in ways we haven't done before. Right. And also , what does it look like for us to to help organizations learn , you know , how do they have culture change within their organizations to make make your organization a safe place for black and brown folks ? Yeah.

S1: And when you're talking about culture change , that leads to attitudes , right. And , you know , attitudes can change policies , systems. How do attitudes need to change to solve these issues. Yeah. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. And that's a really good question. And you know , I do just want to highlight two , the fact that one of the numbers that we saw that that really was disparaging was , you know , black or African American and disabled people have the lowest employment rates in our workforce. And it's like , well , why , why is that ? And and I think a lot of the times when , you know , you bring folks in your organizations and you're trying to help , you're trying to have an internship for , you know , under folks in underserved communities who , who , who they don't walk like you , they don't talk like you. They don't listen to the same music. Right ? Um , they come into a workspace. And what do we hear sometimes ? Well , well , they just weren't a good fit , right ? Or or , you know , they just they didn't fit into what the culture of this organization needs. And sometimes it could be at that basic foundation level. And , and a lot of times it's not about changing the individual. It's about changing that culture in your organization. So so I encourage folks , I think that when you when you ask me , what do I mean , what do what do we need ? As far as the thinking , I think there needs to be an entire paradigm shift around when we talk about what culture is. Maybe we even stopped calling it an organization's culture , right ? Maybe this is just an environment that we want to be a diverse space , right ? So we can bring in different ideas , different ways of thinking , different different folks from different places , especially when you're talking about government and providing services. Right. Uh , our services , the way we provide them , we have to have not just a reflection of those communities , but the experience and the lived experience of those folks in those communities to be able to not just provide the services , but to make the decisions about the services and what we're trying to impact. So I'm talking about leadership change , right ? So we're talking about not just our frontline employers , our our managers , our supervisors , our directors. You know , they should have lived experience. And what does that look like to to create an interview process , right. To be able to to value that in a different way. And I think that that's the type of thinking that needs to change across , across our region. Hmm.

S5: Hmm. And I want.

S1: To dig into solutions more. But before we do , the big elephant here in the room is home ownership , right ? And it is one path towards financial well-being. Yet it's it's difficult for so many people to own a home. Not to mention San Diego still has a major affordable housing shortage.

S3: Money towards housing. Black and African American households were more likely to spend more than half of their income toward housing compared to other households. I mean , so you think about what the median income or the median , you know , house costs right now , I think is upwards and $900,000. So if you're spending half of that , over half of that , and then you have to start making decisions and choices about , you know , we just talked about food. You know , we talked about just enjoying life. Right ? We talked about health care , you know , so all that all those things cost. And if you're spending so much money in your housing needs , um , that that could have a significant impact on your livelihood and your health at the basic foundational needs. Yeah.

S5: Yeah.

S1: It's like it would put one in survival mode rather than in a place to thrive. Absolutely.

S3: Absolutely. And that's what you see. Yeah.

S5: Yeah.


S3: I gotta keep going back to that. And it's , you know , we just set up an Office of Economic Development in the county and it's housing one of our departments. And personally , I think one of our goals needs to be to eradicate poverty. Right. We need to figure out how to how do we do that ? Um , what does that look like ? And people of color and disabled people and immigrants , I think we can all get behind that right as people and say , okay , this is these are our most impacted populations. When you're talking about being 200% below the federal poverty line , right ? So what can we do ? I mean , at least within our organization , to start investing in those folks and getting them out of the out of poverty. And that will also help our , our , our homeless population. Right ? Because that's essentially what we're trying to do is you're at is you eradicate , eradicate poverty , but also , you know , try to eradicate homelessness. And that should be these should be our goals. We should be thinking differently about , you know , not just trying to put Band-Aids on solutions. I'm not saying that's all we're doing , but we should be thinking about how do we eradicate some of these things. You know , we need to be very ambitious , very ambitious.


S3: And a lot of times you create reports and they sit on the shelf. Right. And you know , and or people have it and it's data out there for folks to use. And we can run a story and tie it to something.


S1: Report , you know , is essentially a snapshot of inequity in the county.

S3: We're going to update it as the data comes in. We can't say you know it's going to be updated annually. There will be some data that's going to be updated annually because that's when the data comes out. But as the data comes out will definitely be updating over time. And the other thing is that , you know , it doesn't cover everything in this report. Right. And and one of the things we want to make always take a look at is what do we need to add. What do we need to take off the report. You know , because maybe those indicators are doing so well. But what are we going to highlight. And you know , one of the things that really jumps out to me after the recent floods is infrastructure. And I really want us as a , as a county government and specifically with with this indicator report , I think on next year's version to really consider what is that infrastructure equity look like. Right. And who's getting their their storm channels cleaned out , who's roads are being paved and whose aren't right. So let's take a look at that. But absolutely , the data will definitely be updated annually throughout the year.

S1: Do you hope that it will hold government agencies accountable to being more equitable ? I mean , you know , when you're talking about storm drains and roads being paved , I mean , these these are things that were promised years ago , but obviously those promises were not fulfilled.

S4: Yeah , absolutely.

S3: And I think the more we talk about stuff like this , the more we can show the data or we show the maps , and when we we talk about it , it's like you said , are we talking about these things in the right way ? No , we're not , we're no , we're not. And I think in some communities we are. Right. But I think it when when you're talking about the communities who have the power , who have the influence , right , they aren't right. And I think that's a problem. And I think hopefully the goal is to hold us accountable as government agencies. Right. And to be transparent. Right. And if we are doing things , let's talk about what we're doing. But I absolutely hope that this is another report , another tool to help us be accountable.

S1: I've been speaking with Andrew Strong , director of the San Diego Office of Equity and Racial Justice. Andrew , as always , thank you so much for joining us.

S3: And thank you , Jade. I really appreciate the time.

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A beach closure sign is posted at Imperial Beach due to water pollution, Feb. 13, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
A beach closure sign is posted at Imperial Beach due to water pollution, Feb. 13, 2017.

Contaminated water along the Tijuana River Valley and South Bay coastal waters has caused a public health crisis. In a new report, San Diego State University researchers analyzed more than 60 studies to better understand the problem.

Also, the San Diego Office of Equity and Racial Justice released the first "Equity Indicators” report, which identifies how racism and oppression are affecting San Diegans. Andrew Strong, director of the Office of Equity and Racial Justice, spoke to Midday Edition about these findings and how this report might aid in fostering equity.


  • Paula Stigler Granados, researcher, associate professor, School of Public Health, San Diego State University
  • Andrew Strong, director, Office of Equity and Racial Justice, County of San Diego