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‘Sanitation Tunnels’ At The Border May Do More Harm Than Good In Fighting COVID-19

In early May, the border city of Nogales, Sonora, put out a video of its first sanitation tunnel, just south of the port of entry with the United States.

Officials stop drivers coming south across the border and ask them to walk a few steps into the white, inflatable arch, then spin, arms outstretched, to be sprayed with a disinfectant.

"The product we use is biodegradable. It doesn't have bleach. It's colorless. It doesn't damage the skin, isn't irritating and is non-toxic," said Nogales Health Director Jesus Alberto Dicochea. "And it's effective in killing off a variety of bacteria and viruses."

In recent months, state and local leaders across Mexico have installed the plastic tunnels outside hospitals, health clinics and police stations in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. And Nogales leaders spent thousands of dollars on five tunnels in early May, including one installed outside each of the city's two ports of entry.

"Just like the United States took precautions to protect its citizens, we are also taking our own to protect no only ourselves, but everyone else," Dicochea said.

So far, there have been significantly fewer confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Sonora than in neighboring Arizona. There has also been less testing on the Mexican side of the border.

And Nogales isn’t the only city worried about cross-border infection. In the state of Tamaulipas authorities installed tunnels at the border in April, after a coronavirus outbreak likely spread from a migrant deported from Texas. Other cities have set up checkpoints and are taking temperatures of southbound travelers.

Are Sanitation Tunnels Safe?

Despite the growing number of local leaders investing in the tunnels, Mexico’s Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell has called them a waste of money.

"If there was no risk, we wouldn't have said anything," he said during a press conference on April 8. "But there is a risk."

Far from being helpful, or even harmless, he said the tunnels could further spread COVID-19, by causing people to cough. And the chemicals might irritate the skin, eyes and lungs of people who pass through them.

"I would not recommend this. No," said Pete Raynor, director of the the Industrial Hygiene Program at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Ranyor said sanitation tunnels don’t fight the primary transmission route of coronavirus through respiratory droplets in the air. And he doubts the quick application of disinfectant is effective in killing off the virus on surfaces either.

"And then the health effects to the people being sprayed I think are a concern too," he said.

The disinfectant Nogales is using is designed for surfaces in food preparation, not to be used on people. Different jurisdictions may be using different chemicals.

Instead of investing in the tunnels, Raynor said leaders should encourage people to stick with what we know works: wash your hands with soap and water; wear a mask; social distance and, if you can, stay home.

Crossing The Border

But staying home isn't an option for Fernando Leyvas, who crosses the border daily for his job in the trucking industry.

"I like this control measure, honestly," he said. "It makes me feel a little safer."

Leyvas has heard warnings that the sanitation tunnels aren’t effective, but he said being misted with disinfected and having his temperature checked is comforting when he has to leave home. Even if it isn't really doing much physically to stop him from contracting the virus, it relieves a little stress, he said.

But Carlos Fisher, who works in the produce industry, is worried about the possibility of being exposed to unknown chemicals in the tunnels.

"Even if they tell me what they're using, I’m not an expert, and I’m not going to take any risks of them apply something that’s going to affect my health in the future," he said. "If they would make me go through the tunnel, I wouldn’t do it. I would just go back to the United states and I would not cross into Mexico any more."

Fisher has been able to circumvent the tunnels by taking a toll road out of the port that bypasses that city. Others say they're crossing the border early in the morning before the tunnels start operating.

But Cesar Lopez of Nogales, Arizona, who crosses the border as part of his work with a binational women’s group, said while he's skeptical of the sanitation arches, too, they won’t keep him from crossing the border.

"I mean, I would rather not go through the tunnel. But if I have to go to Mexico and go through the tunnel, I’m going to do it," he said, adding that during the pandemic, he's already crossing the border as little as possible anyway.

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.