Face masks might be here to stay at the Salton Sea, where breathing was already dangerous. Imperial County lives with a haze over it that includes exhaust fumes, factory emissions, pesticide plumes, and vaporized dust that rises from California's largest lake. There's so much lithium in the water that General Motors plans to extract it to use in batteries for electric cars, per Autoweek. Miriam Juárez, who lives in Salton City, never opens a window of her house, the Guardian reports. She puts towels on the floor at the doors. "We're probably going to keep our masks on, even after the pandemic," she said, "to wear against the dust." There's a stench in the air, too. Noemí Vázquez, who operates a day care in her home, puts inhalers all over the house. Five of the 10 children she cares for have asthma; hospitalization rates for children with asthma in the area are twice the average for California. Adult asthma rates also are high.
The saltwater lake was once a California gem, and its resorts a destination for celebrities including Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. The desert oasis was created in 1905, when the Colorado River topped an irrigation canal and filled a basin, per the Guardian. For decades, however, the water level has been falling, uncovering a shoreline holding a powdery arsenic, selenium, and DDT. That cocktail is absorbed by the atmosphere. The water has become saltier as the lake shrinks, allowing for noxious algal blooms and resulting in the deaths of scores of fish. Tens of thousands of migratory birds also have died, starved, or been poisoned. Climate change, drought, and Southern California's need for water are combining to make the Salton Sea area progressively less livable. By 2030, researchers say, the water level could fall to one-fourth of what it is now. "All that dust that gets exposed would mean even more breathing problems and more allergies and asthma for the people who live here," an environmental epidemiologist said. (Read more Salton Sea stories.)