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Asthma and allergies: former tourist paradise poisons the air in one of the cities of California

Asthma and allergies are now part of life here in Imperial County, California. Even the way of life has changed in a region shrouded in gray-beige dust. Several years ago, when the air was particularly thick, Noemie Vasquez woke up at night, unable to speak or breathe. More about the state of the air told the publication The Guardian.

Photo: Shutterstock

Her skin was purple. “If my husband had not slept next to me that night, I would have died,” she said.

Here, in the extreme southeast of California, you can't get away from the toxic air. The fog looming over Imperial County is a mixture of pesticide plumes, exhaust fumes, factory emissions and vaporized dust rising from the nearby Salton Sea.

A lake formed more than a century ago by a broken canal is a multitude of things. It is California's largest lake, an ecological oasis, a former Mecca for famous vacationers and a muddy drain for agricultural waste. Over the decades, it has been shrinking, exposing a coastline containing arsenic and selenium, which are carried away into the atmosphere.

Near the lake, the hospitalization rate of children with asthma is double the state average, and one in five children has the disease. Many of the agricultural and street workers, mostly Mexican Americans, who live and work in Imperial, one of the state's poorest counties, also breathe in a dangerous mixture of Salton Sea dust and pesticides on a daily basis. Calipatria, Brawley and Westmoreland, as well as other cities around the lake, have some of the highest rates of adult asthma in the state.

Amora Garcia, 31, who moved to the area four years ago, says it's a terrible place to live.

“Nobody warned us that it would be so bad for our health,” she said. On sweltering midsummer days, temperatures rise to 120 Fahrenheit (49 Celsius) and brown steam pours from the desert. Hot, dirty air clings to your hair and sneaks under your nails. The lake exudes a sulphurous stench.

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Garcia fears that in the coming years, if nothing is done to tackle the problem of environmental pollution, the area will become almost uninhabitable. An unprecedented drought, exacerbated by the climate crisis, and rising water demand in southern California are accelerating the decline in the Salton Sea. Researchers predict that the lake could lose nearly three-quarters of its volume by 2030. Some estimates suggest that a further 1 acres (000 hectares) of beach could emerge due to lower water levels.

“All this dust will cause even more breathing problems and more allergies and asthma for the people who live here,” said Shore Farzan, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Southern California who has analyzed how the dust around the Salton Sea affects children.

A resort for celebrities and presidents

The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal and filled an ancient basin in the desert, creating an oasis for migratory waders and, by the mid-20th century, for celebrities.

Developers have dotted the shores with palm trees and built luxury resorts around the perimeter, making the area home to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the Beach Boys. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to play golf.

Johnson still occasionally comes to swim in the lake, but he is most likely an exception now. After the ruptured channel that created the lake was repaired, it was largely supported by runoff from nearby farms - water full of pesticides and nitrates that mixed with salt deposits at the bottom of the lake, creating increasingly salty water. By the 1990s, the lake had grown even smaller and saltier, killing masses of fish and spawning poisonous algal blooms. Over the past several decades, tens of thousands of migratory birds around the lake have died either from starvation or from poisoning.

“And then the smell came,” said Miriam Juarez, 37, who has lived by the lake for most of her life. - It's disgusting".

According to her, her parents also took her and her brothers to fish in the lake. But her children only know the lake as a poisonous void that periodically spews out fish bones and poisonous dust. On a hot summer day, when the mercury temperature soared above 120F (48,9C), Juarez's children huddled in their air-conditioned bedrooms, and her eight-year-old son would pop out from time to time to get ice cream from the freezer. It is often too hot and too dusty to play outside, so many local children choose to work out in the nearby gym.

For many families, including the Juarez family, the pandemic has become particularly severe. Imperial County was one of the hardest hit regions in California, and residents' high rates of respiratory illness made them particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. But for some, it has brought joy: being indoors and wearing masks over the past year and a half has improved their asthma and allergy conditions.

“We're probably going to keep our masks on even after the pandemic,” Juarez said. "We'll wear them against the dust."

The masks will be another addition to the complex rituals that Juarez and others have used to survive in this dusty valley. She never opens windows or puts a rug under the doors of her home in Salton City, west of the lake. Her children’s schools have a system of raised green, yellow and red flags to indicate how serious air pollution is on a given day - but even on so-called good days, many children in schools stay in the building during recess to avoid flare-ups of asthma.

Vazquez, 52, who runs a home kindergarten, turns off the air filters every week, mops the floors several times a day, and asks visitors to wear disposable shoe covers - the ones they use in sterile operating rooms - to avoid dust. Of the 10 or so children currently in Vasquez's care, five use asthma inhalers. Over the years, she has seen some really serious cases: children who could barely go outside without gasping for breath, two or three-year-olds who couldn't stop breathing badly.

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Most children come to kindergarten with their own medicine bags filled with inhalers, allergy creams and pills, saline nasal sprays and a change of clothing in case of nosebleeds, which are common among children in the area.

Seven-year-old Derek, whom Vasquez watched when he was very young, was so bad that he constantly ended up in the hospital, he constantly needs help. According to his mother, Melissa Fisher, he was born prematurely, his lungs were slightly underdeveloped. He is feeling better now; he still doesn't breathe well on windy days, but an inhaler usually helps him.

“I don't think he remembers being in the hospital,” Fischer said. “But I think it was traumatic. He is always very careful about new places and experiences. I think it instilled fear in him. "

Generations have suffered and been traumatized as a result of environmental pollution, Vasquez said. She, her 27-year-old daughter and XNUMX-year-old granddaughter suffer from severe asthma. According to her, generation after generation is getting sick from the dust.

Unfulfilled promises

In 2003, the region's local water authority signed the largest agreement in US history with San Diego to transfer water from agriculture to cities. The Imperial Irrigation District (IID) has agreed to begin selling much of its huge water supply from the Colorado River to city dwellers and suburbanites along the coast. As part of the deal, IID agreed to send some water to the Salton Sea for another 15 years, buying her and other local authorities time to find a solution to the lake's shrinking problem.

“For 15 years, everyone just sat there and did nothing,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comité Cívico Del Valle, a health and welfare organization in Brawley, south of the Salton Sea. A $ 8,9 billion proposal in 2007 to rehabilitate the lake fell through when the recession hit. In 2015, local authorities launched a project in Red Hill Bay, intending to flood the dried-up lake bed and nearby Alamo River to reduce dust and create wetlands for birds. Today it remains flat, dry and dusty - the project was thwarted by budget problems, local politics and "just a lack of will," Olmedo said. "They keep doing these ribbon cutting ceremonies and nothing happens."

The dust-covered sign at the Red Hill site continues to be optimistic with the promise of "Planned construction in 2016."

Yet consulting firms, advocacy groups, and local governments are coming up with larger and more creative plans to tackle this problem. One idea was to pump the water out of the Cortez Sea, desalinate it and pump it into the lake. Some locals are wondering: why not pipe water from the Pacific Ocean?

In recent years, the Energy Commission has shown increasing interest in the prospects for investing in lithium mining in the area. It lent millions to energy companies to study the extraction of an element used in batteries used in mobile phones and electric vehicles. If one small demonstration plant, being developed by a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, goes well, the company expects the Salton Sea region to produce a third of the world's lithium, revitalize the region's stagnant economy, and accelerate the country's ambitious road transport decarbonisation plans.

“These are just speculations,” sighs Olmedo. "While various companies are biding their time, waiting for this lithium thing to appear, we are still breathing toxic air."

Robert Shettler, a spokesman for the irrigation district, said: "At IID, we are also disappointed with the progress in the Salton Sea, but we continue to work on it." Water agency executives pointed to various dust suppression projects they have undertaken in recent years, including planting vegetation to compact the soil and "roughening the surface."

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The state has also launched a $ 206 million project to restore fish and bird habitats on the lake's southwestern shore.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task,” said Arturo Delgado, assistant secretary for policy for the Salton Sea at the California Natural Resources Agency. But, as he said, "progress is being made."

Nancy del Castillo, 42, who lives with her husband and two children in Salton City, said she found it difficult to trust such assurances. She has been trying to save up for years in order to move to another area where the air will be better. Riverside and Coachella, in the north, still see pollution from pesticides and diesel fumes, but things are not so bad.

“The earth has been raising poisonous dust for years,” she said. "It seems ugly to me that officials continue to deceive people by telling us that they are going to fix it."

She said that Castillo and a group of her neighbors had conscientiously attended public meetings, local hearings and even larger gatherings on how to improve the situation in the Salton Sea for years and became increasingly frustrated.

Once, speaking about air pollution in Imperial County at a meeting in Sacramento, the capital of California, Castillo said she overheard a man rejecting the crisis: "Yes, but only a few people live there."

According to her, many families in this region are Mexican immigrants, people who work in the field or in construction cannot afford to move to another place, breathe toxic air because they have no other choice. But to this man, she said, "as if we don't even exist."

“However, I don’t want to leave here,” Juarez said. - I want to stay. I want to fight. "

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