October 3, 2008

The health effects of the border commute

Part 2

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Sitting inside your car for a couple of hours everyday can have effects in your physical health.

Ruben Maldonado knows this very well. He’s one of thousands of commuters that make the daily exodus of crossing the border through the two ports of entry in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

Although he lives in Tijuana because of the affordable housing compared to San Diego, Maldonado said the commute has taken a toll on his health, especially his lower back.

“It’s just painful all the time sitting behind the wheel at the border,” said Maldonado, who works in retail. “I can’t even stop the car to stretch, because if I do, cars cut in front of me.”

Like Maldonado, many commuters complaint about the pains they have to endure because of the border wait-times.


From here you can barely see the border gate which means about another 45 minutes of waiting.

These border-crossers are usually U.S. citizens and permanent residents (many of them children) who live in Tijuana and work or go to school in San Diego, like Maldonado, a U.S. citizen who, like the majority of commuters, moved to Mexico because of the high cost of housing in San Diego County.

The daily commute time varies.

“The wait times at the San Ysidro Port of Entry can be a few minutes late at night and during the mid-day but can peak up to 120 minutes during the busy daily commutes in the early morning and evening hours,” said Vince Bond, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Public Affairs Officer.

Waiting at the border in your car can cause all sorts of pain: neck, wrist, hip, knee, foot, but most of all, back ache.

Francisco Bustos, a 33 year-old English professor at Southwestern College, in San Diego County, knows this too well. After commuting back and forth across the border most of his life, Bustos now suffers of constant lower back and knee pain.

That’s one of the reasons he decided to move to San Diego full-time.

“It was just too painful,” he said. “It was affecting my daily life, my job.”

To reduce the impact in your physical health, experts recommend adjusting the car seat to suit your posture. They also say to keep the seat fairly upright and slightly leaning backwards.

But articulations and back pain are not the only physical health effects that border commuters have to face. There are others, silent ones, which are as much of a threat to their health: pollutants and toxins in the air.

Although the economic effects of the long border wait-times have been studied in the past, there’s hardly any research on the health aspects.

Dr. PJE Quintana, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, is doing one of the few studies on the subject. Her study, “Air Quality Inside Cars Crossing U.S.-Mexico Border,” is trying “to quantify exposures to toxic air pollutants, experienced by frequent commuters during their commute across the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in regards to border wait times.”

She said that “exposure to traffic-related air pollution is increasingly being associated with adverse health effects, including asthma, heart disease and even adverse reproductive outcomes.

“In-vehicle levels of particulate matter other pollutants, including carbon monoxide and benzene can be high in slow or stopped traffic, such as at the ports of entry.”

For the study, that is being released later this year, she is working with researchers at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California to place monitors in participant vehicles to take the sample measurements.

Quintana said that some of the effects of exposure to fine particulate air pollution, such as PM2.5 um and smaller, can affect lung and heart function in the long run.

She said that there’s increased risk of a heart attack one hour after traffic exposure.

Quintana said that turning your air conditioning system inside your car while waiting at the border might reduce the effects of these toxins and pollutants in your health.

Mayra Ortega is a border commuter who has been dividing her life between both sides of the border for almost 10 years. She said that after being in line for half an hour, she starts to have trouble breathing.

“I get a stitching nose, I have to roll down all the windows to get some extra air inside the car,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because I hate waiting in line, but I always find it hard to breath at the port of entry.”

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