When taking a deep breath is hazardous: The physical and mental health costs of a shrinking Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is California’s largest body of water and is disappearing at an accelerated rate due to climate change, drought, and reduced agricultural runoffs. The Salton Sea is technically a lake; as the lake evaporates and shrinks, its dry lakebed containing toxic arsenic, selenium, chromium, lead, and pesticides from the nearby farms, becomes exposed. Scientists warn that chemicals trapped in the lakebed deposits can be picked up by winds, spreading toxic dust particles throughout the atmosphere in Imperial and Coachella Counties. A recent study led by graduate student Alexander Frie and Dr. Roya Bahreini, PhD from the University of California, Riverside has already found high concentrations of sodium and selenium in airborne particulate matter surrounding the sea and traced about 10% of particulate matter back to lakebed dust. As the shoreline shrinks, more lakebed is exposed, generating heavier dust emissions. These emissions contribute to greater airborne pollution, worsening air quality.

SSS- Shoreline.pngAn expanding lake bed. Photo credit: Devon Christopher Adams

Airborne particulate pollution and poor air quality are linked to a number of respiratory diseases. Public health officials are concerned that dust emissions from the shrinking Salton Sea are threatening the health of the predominantly Latino population that live nearby. Imperial County experiences hazardous air quality conditions—and a shrinking Salton Sea will only make air pollution matters worse. Around 23,000 Imperial County residents, including children, are currently diagnosed with asthma. In fact, Imperial County experiences the highest number of pediatric asthma-related emergency room visits in the entire State of California. While it is tough to directly attribute the cause of this rampant asthma to the increasingly exposed lakebed and increased dust emissions resulting from it, research outcomes reveal robust links between airborne particulate pollution and the development of asthma in childhood.

SSS - LakebedSalton Sea lakebed. Photo credit: Kevin Key

Unfortunately, the potential public health costs of a receding Salton Sea shoreline extend far beyond respiratory health problems. A number of research studies have linked pediatric asthma to childhood anxiety and mood disorders. High concentrations of airborne particulate pollution can indirectly pose a mental health threat, too. One study in Pakistan of low income children found that children with asthma are 18 times more likely to have mental health problems than those without asthma, even after considering differences that might exist among the children, like their age, sex, household size, birth weight, allergies, and whether they had a family history of asthma. Another study from Australia, tracking children over several years, found that a diagnosis of severe and persistent asthma at 5 years of age was linked to a significantly greater risk for developing anxiety and other mental health problems in early adolescence. Having poorly managed asthma makes it more likely a child will develop mental health problems; and the worse the air quality, the harder it is to manage asthma.

SSS - Fish.pngDead fish at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Devon Christopher Adams

Public health officials in Imperial County could promote programs that can target the respiratory and mental health problems that a shrinking Salton Sea may be amplifying. Heightened stress levels among families with asthmatic children have been shown to exacerbate both asthma and anxiety symptoms. A study in California found that high parental stress and low socio-economic status were both linked to increased risk for asthma among families exposed to high concentrations of airborne particulate pollution. Unfortunately, close to a quarter of the population in Imperial and Coachella counties are currently living in poverty, which not only increases familial stress levels but also reduces access to therapy and other comprehensive mental and physical healthcare services. For lower income families, affordable, easy-to-implement stress management practices could impact both asthma and anxiety development and symptoms.

SSS - Dusty Sky.pngDust skies at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Kevin Key

Education programs that teach families about the importance of stress management for disease care and provide useful, feasible stress management strategies that cater to Imperial County residents may generate numerous benefits. In order for community-based stress management programs to be effective though, they should consider that environmental, financial, and physical health-related constraints may render many common strategies impractical. For example, preventative measures like spending time outdoors or in nature, engaging in physical exercise and receiving sun exposure to stimulate vitamin D production are cost-effective but potentially counterproductive when air quality problems mean that it is safer for families to stay indoors. Furthermore, several of the free, indoor preventative strategies such as yoga, using breathing-focused relaxation techniques, and practicing good sleep hygiene may be especially difficult for individuals with poorly-managed or severe asthma that have trouble breathing. Minimal knowledge of stress management options that are affordable, safe and practical for families with asthmatic children may increase the mental and physical health risks among Imperial County community members.

SSS - Dust StormA dust storm at the Salton Sea. Photo credit: Kevin Key

A comprehensive plan to mitigate the public health risks faced by Imperial County residents requires urgent attention not only to the worsening air quality but also to familial stress management practices. Public health education campaigns could teach low-cost, easy-to-implement stress management techniques, specifically for families with asthma sufferers living in regions with hazardous air quality conditions. Educating families about the health risks the lake may pose could foster collaborative efforts among residents, community organizations, and policy makers to work together on sea management solutions that consider its broader public health consequences. The type of education campaign needed is not easily created, but is increasingly necessary. As the Sea recedes at a rapid pace, families and children are placed at cumulative risk for simultaneously developing multiple illnesses, spanning physical and mental health. With a quarter of the regional population living in poverty, the local community cannot afford to shoulder the accumulating health care costs that can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to the Salton Sea. A broad-gauged approach is needed that not only directly addresses the shrinking sea but also considers the livelihood and position of families in the surrounding community.

By Parisa Parsafar

Parisa is a fourth-year doctoral student in Developmental Psychology and an interdisciplinary NSF WaterSENSE IGERT Fellow at the University of California, Riverside. Her work uses eye-tracking, behavioral, and physiological measures to understand cognitive and emotional-regulatory processes related to how people (children and adults) manage negative emotional situations.

Shrinking Shorelines Symposium

Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea:

Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions


On Friday May 11, 2018, the University of California, Riverside – Palm Desert Center along with the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside hosted a symposium, Shrinking Shorelines and the Salton Sea: Consideration of Community Impacts, Recent Research, and Possible Solutions. This invitation-only event was attended by nearly 100 people and brought together many policymakers, research scientists, community leaders, students, and other Salton Sea experts for the first time. With a shared goal of supporting action to protect the environment and public health at the Sea, panel discussions and presentation topics ranged from air quality science to environmental justice.

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Salton Sea: May the (Task) Force be with you

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The Salton Sea Task Force convened in Sacramento on Tuesday to assess the progress of the Salton Sea Management Program (SSMP), which has declared specific goals for habitat and shoreline restoration. The task force was led by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), and heard from four agencies with updates: the CA Natural Resources Agency, the Colorado River Regional Water Quality Control Board, the CA Air Resources Board, and the CA Energy Commission. All gave presentations ranging from fresh perspectives on older, well-known data, to hot off the press developments within their agencies. Continue reading “Salton Sea: May the (Task) Force be with you”

Dust to Dust

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While there are many risks associated with the drying of the Salton Sea, perhaps the most concerning is the risk to public health. Previous posts on this blog discussed the health effects of dust from the Salton Sea, and that these health effects could end up costing around $29 billion. However, you may be thinking that these risks and costs are exaggerations or scare tactics. How could the dust from the Salton Sea make such a big difference when it is relatively small (343 square miles) when compared to the whole Salton Basin area of 8,360 square miles? Also, the majority of the basin is not covered by crops to reduce the wind erosion and transport of dust. So how can the drying of the Salton Sea which is approximately 3% of the total basin area, have such a disproportionate impact on the air quality? The answers to these questions lie in the composition of the sediment that lies below the Salton Sea. Continue reading “Dust to Dust”

A Solution is The Solution

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Ask anyone who cares about the Salton Sea and surrounding areas what it is they want for the Sea, and you will almost unanimously hear, “restoration,” as part of their response. Everyone will have a different perspective on the definition of that term, but common denominators include: 1) protecting public health by keeping water on the playa, or exposed lakebed, thereby preventing increased fugitive dust, and 2) supporting an ecosystem comprised of plants, fish, and birds.

Podium at the
Podium at the “playa-breaking” ceremony for the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project

Salton Sea advocates all have a new, long overdue reason to celebrate with the beginning of construction for the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project at the southeast portion of the Sea. On Thursday, November 5, 2015, two Salton Sea Sense members, Holly Mayton and Drew Story, attended the “playa breaking” ceremony where local, state, and federal partners broke ground. Under the supervision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, this project aims to blend together Alamo River water with existing Salton Sea water, and cover 450 acres of currently exposed playa, thereby creating a saline wetland habitat for birds; addressing those two common denominators previously mentioned[1].

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AB 965 California and Mexico Border: Water Resources Improvement

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia speaking to the Assembly Select Committee on Renewable Energy Development and Restoration of the Salton Sea
Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia speaking to the Assembly Select Committee on Renewable Energy Development and Restoration of the Salton Sea. Courtesy of ASMDC.org

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Assembly Bill 965, written by Eduardo Garcia from the 56th District, amends previous legislation to increase cooperation with Mexico and allocates money to be used for watershed restoration projects along the US-Mexico border. [1] Specifically, AB 965 adds the Secretary of State and Consumer Services to the California-Mexico Border Relations Council as a voting member, and it allows the US EPA Region 9 to appoint a non-voting representative to the council as well. Similarly, the bill also requires the council to invite representatives from Mexico to any meetings that are held by the council. As far as resource allocation, the bill makes funds available from the California Border Environmental and Public Health Protection Fund to the California-Mexico Border Relations Council, to be used to:

“… identify and resolve environmental and public health problems that directly threaten the health or environmental quality of California residents or sensitive natural resources of the California border region, including projects related to domestic and industrial wastewater, vehicle and industrial air emissions, hazardous waste transport and disposal, human and ecological risk, and disposal of municipal solid waste.” [2]

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A Clean Bill(s) of Health for Salton Sea Residents

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Last week, an article was published by KCET that addressed the question of Why Don’t Californians Care About Saving the Salton Sea? The authors conclude that the seemingly artificial nature of the Sea is what keeps it from gaining public support, especially by environmental activists. However, I would argue that the real issue with getting Californians to care about the Salton Sea is an issue of environmental justice. Residents of the Salton Sea region are among the poorest in the country, and simply don’t have the affluence to attract the level of attention that saving the Sea requires. In southern California, this makes it difficult to compete with the interests of neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and La Jolla.

However, we can see some progress being made to address these issues. Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown took action on some key legislation for the Coachella Valley, including the bills AB 2 and AB 1059. Continue reading “A Clean Bill(s) of Health for Salton Sea Residents”