IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. (Border Report) — Researchers from the University of California San Diego last week released findings from a study showing how some bacteria in the air comes from raw sewage flowing into California from Mexico.

They uncovered that the bacteria becomes airborne when sewage hits the ocean as it gets churned by the surf.

“The big takeaway from that study is that contaminants from the sewage are getting into the air,” said Greg Sandstron, a UCSD researcher.

Sandstron and others are now collecting air samples daily as they try to determine whether viruses, not just bacteria from the sewage, are also getting into the air people breathe.

Greg Sandstron is a researcher with the University of California San Diego. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

This is a big concern because millions of gallons of raw sewage flow into the Tijuana River Valley between Tijuana and San Diego, forcing beaches to be declared off-limits as a way to keep people from becoming ill.

But is it possible people are also getting sick from breathing the air along the valley and the coast?

“There is a huge health impact and people need to be aware of this due to human pollution,” said Sandstron. “Viruses are very hard to detect and that’s the main thing we’re trying to work on and here we’re looking for viruses in particular and we’re trying to develop techniques to collect viruses that might be airborne.”

Researchers like Sandstron and his colleagues are getting a chance to do even more work thanks to a grant they just received from the Balvi Filantropic Fund.

The $15 million gift establishes the Meta-Institute for Airborne Disease in a Changing Climate (“The Airborne Institute”) at UCSD.

Dr. Kim Prather is the lead researcher and Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, and Distinguished Professor at Scripps Oceanography and UC San Diego’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. (Courtesy: UC San Diego)

“We are excited to launch this new institute that will allow us to take a multidisciplinary approach to better understand airborne transmission of disease,” said Dr. Kim Prather, Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry and Distinguished Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCSD. “Working together with healthcare experts, infectious disease doctors, engineers, respiratory experts and scientists, we will be developing state-of-the-art measurements and computational tools to study these problems. A major goal is to develop a better understanding of the production and sources of airborne bioparticles and how long they remain infectious.”

Others said the money will help them answer more questions about pathogens and possible viruses in the air along the Tijuana River Valley, which is heavily polluted by south-of-the-border sewage.

“Where we want to go further is in getting actual information, can we turn our data around in a rapid case,” said Lisa Zeigle, a researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “With this funding, we should be able to chip away at this and look at the viability of pathogens, what’s being transferred and often we can educate the public on what’s going on around them.”