The Environmental Justice in San Diego-Tijuana Border

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San Diego –Tijuana border is the largest bi national conurbation and the fourth largest in the world. The border is made of San Diego County of United States and Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Tecate in Mexico. It is one of the most populous places in the California Baja with a population of 4.9 million according to 2012 survey. Tijuana shares a 24 kilometres boundary with San Diego, California. It is the largest city in Baja California characterised by numerous manufacturing companies of US.  Every year, more than 50 million people cross the border, making it the busiest land – crossing in the region and a vibrant hub for commercial activity between United States and Mexico.  With a GDP of $136.3 billion, the region has benefited immensely form globalisation and has become synonymous with tourism and natural beauty. Regions located along San Diego- Tijuana border have experienced population and economic growth caused by increased manufacturing activities from foreign firms. However, these firms have been accused of poor waste management that leads to environmental pollution. Additionally, settlement of people form rural Mexico areas in regions along crossings has exposed residents to health risks due to pollution of air and land by motor vehicles and manufacturing firms. While efforts have been taken to combat pollution, more needs to be achieved to address environment justice issues faced by people exposed to harmful pollutants.

Urbanisation in San Diego has increased the level of harmful particles in California Imperial Valley. The atmosphere is in the valley is full of harmful microscopic particles that cause serious health effects on lung and heart. The contaminated air of Imperial Valley represents the problem of urbanisation and increased population growth in Sa Diego-Tijuana border.  According to Brown (1), there are several factors contributing to harmful air in the region, such as agricultural burns. However, Brown argues that diesel and gas are the top leading contributors to the air population problem (1). Near the border crossing, the highest levels of wind carrying harmful particles are in Calexico. The booming population looking for employment in Mexicali has enhanced manufacturing activities in the free trade area under NAFTA. This has led to increased congestion of people and plaguing of the valleys with harmful air. Brown notes that more than 7.6 million motor vehicles cross the border through Calexico annually, carrying people who are seeking employment opportunities (2). In some of the most extremes valleys, springtime forming white caps in irrigation can lead to extreme temperatures. During winter, the atmosphere which contains diesel and fuel particles amongst its constituents makes the region perilous especially for school children who are exposed to asthma. While contaminated air does not directly cause asthma and other health complications, it is a major trigger cause of the disease.

One of the most perilous particles called PM 2.5 has been found to be highly concentrated in Calexico. PM is a term used to identify extremely small particles and droplets of liquids ion the atmosphere. The smallness of PM 2.5 allows it to enter the deepest and sensitive regions of the victim’s lungs. It is mainly carried to the region through cross border traffic.  According to El Salvador (2), PM 2.5 is mainly caused by incomplete combustion, dust, cooking, motor car emissions and chemical reactions in the atmosphere. When inhaled, PM 2.5 penetrate into the blood stream and interfere with cardiovascular system. Exposure to PM 2.5 leads to irregular heartbeat, aggravation of existing prevailing heart disease, nonfatal attacks and premature death of people having heart problems. Children are high chances of developing complications caused by PM 2.5 since their lungs are developing and spend more time doing high level activities. Other than contributing to hazardous human health, PM 2.5 is associated with economic impacts like morbidity, lost income, absence from work and increased health costs.

It was complained that increased growth of US companies in Tijuana has multiplied environmental degradation in the region. Grineski et al (4) argue that firms contributing to ecological damage are not punished accordingly, and that there exists a poor violation law as well as weak framework to Mexico to ensure proper use of environment. These firms have been accused of creating pollution in the air, water and soil through their activities. They release toxic chemicals that are sometimes improperly disposed. Grineski et al (5) explain that toxic waste form foreign companies located along the border have been documented to release toxic effluents in drainage systems into the nearby communities. The waste matter contains harmful substances like lead and chromium. Companies dealing with electronics also pose serious health issues to the society   due to the acids, heavy metals and hydrocarbon they use to manufacture goods. A recent study by Bei et al. (2) found black carbon, which is contaminant with respiratory effects, to be occurring at high concentrations in the region. Occupational exposure to diesel exhaust was also found to be a dominant cause of concern. The study noted that harmful black carbon occurred two times higher compared to San Diego. Part of the problem is that regulation measures are not well developed.. Conversely, the fight against environmental degradation in SAN Diego-Tijuana border is made difficult by strong interest groups that hinder effective enforcement of policies and presence of vague regulations.

NAFTA industrialisation program allowed foreign companies to establish operations in Mexico. This program attracted millions of people from rural areas to cities located along Sa Diego-Tijuana border Srikrishan note that nearly 33 000 buses cross through the entry of San Ysidro and most of these buses remain in the traffic line for more than two hours  releasing harmful waste into the atmosphere (1). As result, border patrol agents are exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide. Srikrishan further states that 41 percent of residents living along san Diego-Tijuana border in San Ysidro are exposed to 500 feet of sources of pollution (1). Workers who have high income are at higher risks of exposure most of these toxins since they have long exposure time to diesel emissions. Air quality is especially poor near border crossings, which can be explained by the slow movement of vehicles. This harms pedestrians and residents who live near the crossings. Commuter living in Tijuana but working in san Diego are exposed to high particulate matter, while pedestrians who commute during the day are at risk of inhaling contaminated air as they wait to cross the borders. However, cross border travel will most likely increase in the future due to predicted local and international growth of the border. As a result, delays will also increase leading to increased damage of environment through air pollution.

Pollution has not only resulted to high risks of health problems to the society, but has also impeded the growth and development of more inclusive democratic urbanisation. The problem of air pollution is more common with poor people of Latino ethnicity. Brown notes that 80 percent of the valley’s population is made of Latinos (5). This ethnic group has been exposed to problems of urban development along US Mexican border, such as air pollution and por health.  They live in settlements near busy roads and mainly take blue colour jobs like construction that puts them at risk of heath complications. The victims are mainly poor people who travel form rural towns of Mexico in pursuit of green pastures in the US Mexican border. According to Barneur and Koubi (2), public goods, such as quality environment, may not be fully provided when there strong interest groups opposed to environmental policies. Reza (1) bring to light how pollution has interfered with progress in learning institutions. According to a 2003 state law, establishment of schools has been prohibited with 500 feet of major roads unless the pollution of air can be effectively controlled.  However, in the region of San Ysidro, 41 percent of families live within 5000 feet of the prohibited locations. This has slowed education opportunities for people living in the areas as it becomes difficult to build schools.

Injustices of environmental pollution have been experience din San Diego –Tijuana border where factories are more concentrated in densely polluted areas. These areas have higher concentration of children.  Also, new workers form rural areas live close to urban centres of the border compared to senior workers, and are therefore more exposed to risks of environmental pollution.. It is common for people to engage in open burning of waste. Smoke from agricultural burning fill the Imperial Valley while at night, illegal burning take place. Tires, carbon monoxide, benzene and other toxins are released into the air due to lack of sufficient regulations measure to combat damage of natural ecologies. As pollution crisis continues to challenge residents in centres along the border, US government proposed to expand the border crossing to ease congestion. However, concerns still remain about the health implications, especially air contamination related to the expansion.

Dating back form 2009, groups representing the people of San Ysidro have expressed concerns related to environmental degradation and lack of quality breathing air. The group has making efforts to have the federal government address pollution by presenting issues related to justice and air quality. In response to these concerns, the government agreed to some of the needs by establishing additional routes for pedestrians as well as changing how companies are inspected and regulated in relation to waste management. People are also encouraged to use public transport means like buses instead of using personal cars. There are also plans to establish a mass transit hub in both sides of US and Mexico in in order to persuade more people to travel by foot instead of using cars. Additionally, the United States environmental protection Agency with the assistance of San Diego county Air Pollution control implemented a system to monitor air pollution at the port of San Ysidro in 2015. The system measures the level of particulate matter in atmosphere in real time to help the agency track changes.

In summation, Urbanisation along the border has opened the region to international development and attracted people from all over the world. As the population contuse to soar high, pollution has been on a steady increase as millions of vehicles pass through San Ysidro. Increased population growth has led to expansion of urban settlement and increased production activities that are typical of urban centres.  Millions of people go back and forth the border in a bid to make ends meet. Thousands of vehicles line to the border crossing waiting to move. This has not only increased the intensity of wind blowing into Imperial Valley for the south, but has also multiplied air pollution. environmental degradation has become a hot topic of debate with concern about health implications evidenced by high cases of asthma. Additionally, increased manufacturing activities have been marked by industrial emissions and other environmental harms to the region.

Works cited

Bei N F et al. Meteorological overview and plume transport patterns during Cal-Mex Atmos. Environ(2013).

Bernauer, Thomas, and Vally Koubi. "Effects of political institutions on air quality." Ecological economics 68.5 (2009): 1355-1365.

Brown, Patricia Leigh. ‘The air is dark and asthma is deadly along the Mexico border’. Reveal (2015). Available at:

El Salvador, Salvador . ‘Overview of Particle Air Pollution (PM2. 5 and PM10) Air Quality Communication Workshop ‘(2012).

Grineski, Sara E., Timothy W. Collins, and María de Lourdes Romo Aguilar. "Environmental injustice along the US–Mexico border: residential proximity to industrial parks in Tijuana, Mexico." Environmental Research Letters 10.9 (2015): 095012.

Reza, H, G. ‘San Ysidro Residents Brace for a Busier Border’ (2016). Available at:

Srikrishan Maya, San Ysidro Is Getting a Clearer Look at Just How Polluted it Is(2018). Available at:

August 01, 2023

Environment Health


Environment Problems

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Air Pollution

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