June 7, 2021

DOI 10.7717/peerj.11358
Matthew A. Pendergraft1, Derek J. Grimes1, Sarah N. Giddings1, Falk Feddersen1, Charlotte M. Beall1, Christopher Lee1,2, Mitchell V. Santander2, Kimberly A. Prather1,2


Each year, over one hundred million people become ill and tens of thousands die from exposure to viruses and bacteria from sewage transported to the ocean by rivers, estuaries, stormwater, and other coastal discharges. Water activities and seafood consumption have been emphasized as the major exposure pathways to coastal water pollution. In contrast, relatively little is known about the potential for airborne exposure to pollutants and pathogens from contaminated seawater.

The Cross Surfzone/Inner-shelf Dye Exchange (CSIDE) study was a large-scale experiment designed to investigate the transport pathways of water pollution along the coast by releasing dye into the surfzone in Imperial Beach, CA. Additionally, we leveraged this ocean-focused study to investigate potential airborne transmission of coastal water pollution by collecting complementary air samples along the coast and inland. Aerial measurements tracked sea surface dye concentrations along 5+ km of coast at 2 m × 2 m resolution. Dye was detected in the air over land for the first 2 days during two of the three dye releases, as far as 668 m inland and 720 m downwind of the ocean. These coordinated water/air measurements, comparing dye concentrations in the air and upwind source waters, provide insights into the factors that lead to the water-to-air transfer of pollutants.

These findings show that coastal water pollution can reach people through an airborne pathway and this needs to be taken into account when assessing the full impact of coastal ocean pollution on public health. This study sets the stage for further studies to determine the details and importance of airborne exposure to sewage-based pathogens and toxins in order to fully assess the impact of coastal pollution on public health.