California researchers examine how far coronavirus can travel once airborne

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SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — A team of researchers from UC San Diego is looking into whether the coronavirus can spread through the air for miles on out.

The possibility is being studied in the Tijuana Estuary and Pacific Ocean in South San Diego. The area is plagued by renegade sewage flows from Mexico that carry tens of millions of gallons of untreated sewage, pushing it north of the border, something that happens almost on a daily basis.

Two unidentified surfers in Imperial Beach, Calif. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

This often forces the closure of many beaches and has been known to make surfers and swimmers sick.

Researchers are trying to figure out what happens to viruses found in sewage — including the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 — once they hit the pounding surf in the ocean.

Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry Kim Prather. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

“The focus in the past has been on pollution going into the ocean and how it affects people who are surfing, swimming, walking on the beach. Anytime you have pollution going into the ocean there’s a chance it’s going to become airborne. Question is, what’s it doing to our health,” said Dr. Kim Prather, UC San Diego’s Distinguished Chair Atmospheric Chemistry.

“A lot of viruses become airborne but not all of them. We’re trying to understand which ones get into the air and eventually get into humans,” she said.

Soon, researchers will begin testing people who live near the beach and in Tijuana to see if their bodies have traces of a virus including COVID-19, Prather said.

“We’ll also be working with surfers, there’s a lot of surfers who have expressed concern about what they’re breathing while they’re surfing, why their lungs don’t feel so good. We’ll be swabbing surfers before and after they go in the ocean just to see what is getting into them,” Prather said.

People on the sand in Imperial Beach, Calif. an area often declared off-limits after sewage spills originating in Tijuana, Mexico. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

Prather said previous tests show that crashing surf can in fact break up materials sending them into the air, spreading particles for miles.

“Once it’s in the air, a lot more people get exposed, you don’t have to go into the water to get exposed.”

But Dr. Prather cautioned they will not be able to say whether any of the “viruses are viable” including COVID-19

“This virus doesn’t like sun or heat.  If we detect it, more studies will be needed to determine if it is viable, we believe it will have difficulty surviving in the ocean and air. There’s no reason to create alarm in the public at this time,” said Dr. Prather.

Dr. Prather says she hopes to have preliminary findings by the fall, although the study is expected to go on for years.

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