Salton Sea dust triggers lung inflammation

UC Riverside study has health implications for people living around California’s largest lake.

The Salton Sea, the body of water in Southern California’s Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley, is shrinking over time as the planet warms and exposing more lakebed and new sources of dust in the process. High levels of dust already plague the region, a situation likely to worsen as the sea continues to shrink due to climate change.

Not surprisingly, the communities surrounding the Salton Sea have high rates of childhood asthma (20–22.4%) — much higher than the California average of 14.5%.

A University of California, Riverside, mouse study, led by Dr. David Lo, a distinguished professor of biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine, has found that dust collected at sites near the Salton Sea triggered lung neutrophil inflammation in mice. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cells that help fight infection.

Exposed lakebed has been linked to higher levels of dust at the Salton Sea. The dust in the Salton Sea Basin is estimated to increase by 11% between 2018 and 2030. (UCR/Stan Lim)

“We now have an important direct demonstration that chronic exposures to Salton Sea dust may have a role in the asthma in residents closest to the Salton Sea,” said Lo, who directs the Bridging Regional Ecology, Aerosolized Toxins, & Health Effects, or BREATHE, Center. Housed in the UC Riverside medical school, the center addresses critical issues in air quality and health.

“What residents near the sea are breathing is dissolved material from the sea, with microbial components that can promote inflammation,” Lo said. “As the sea continues to dry up and expose more dust-producing lakebed, it could increase concern for the residents, especially as climate change drives chronic drought in the region.”

Lo explained that dust can cause several pulmonary diseases. In the Salton Sea, contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and microbial toxins may be enriched in the dust. To examine the potentially harmful effects of this dust, the study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, used an environmental exposure chamber at UC Riverside.



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