For the third time in less than two weeks, medical wastes washed ashore in La Jolla early Thursday, forcing city lifeguards to scramble over half a mile of beach to retrieve the trash, including a large syringe with an attached hypodermic needle.
The latest discovery rekindled speculation about the origin of the batches of medical wastes that have washed up in La Jolla recently. County health officials speculated that the items found Thursday at La Jolla Shores had actually been thrown into the water from shore, possibly by drug users who had rummaged through nearby medical garbage bins.
“It wasn’t pocked, it didn’t have any marine growth on it,” Larry Aker, assistant deputy director of the division of environmental health services, said of the wastes. “It would be unlikely that it had floated in the ocean for any length of time.”
Aker said, however, that county health officials are exploring the possibility that some of the wastes found late last month may have been thrown overboard from Navy vessels, or even discarded improperly by Naval ships once they reach port.
The Navy has “conceded that it might be a remote possibility” that its
current regulations would have allowed such ocean dumping of infectious wastes, Aker said Thursday. But a Navy spokesman said in a separate interview Thursday that no ship in the Pacific fleet has dumped medical wastes in the past two years.
Thursday’s discovery came at about 6:30 a.m., when a beach-goer told lifeguards about medical paraphernalia about 20 yards north of the north restrooms at the La Jolla Shores beach, lifeguard Tom Thayer said.
Lifeguards and health officials then scoured a half-mile length of the beach, Aker said, and collected a 400-cubic-centimeter bottle of disinfectant, several surgical gloves, an intravenous bag with about 2 inches of rubber hosing sticking out of it, an empty soap container for “institutional use,” and a 100-cubic-centimeter syringe with attached hypodermic needle.
Aker said none of the material was, by legal definition, infectious--containing bodily fluids or other agents that would transmit disease. Infectious materials include blood, surgical dressings, body parts and used needles.
“It is almost inconceivable that there was a germ that lived on this material. It had been completely washed by sea water,” said Aker.
‘People Are Disgusted’
Yet Aker emphasized that the county health department is still very concerned about finding the origin of the waste.
“People are disgusted by it,” Aker said. “People around here (the health department) call it the ‘yuck’ factor.”
Aside from a lack of marine growth on the items, there were other indications that the medical wastes had not been in the ocean very long before being deposited on the beach by high tide, Aker said. The disinfectant bottle, he said, still had a barely visible label with a skull and crossbones marking.
Those clues, he said, have led health officials to speculate that the wastes were thrown into the ocean from the shore. A likely scenario, although there is no hard evidence, is that drug users brought the waste to the beach after rummaging through the garbage bins of nearby medical offices for usable syringes.
“The beach is a place where there is a lot of drug use,” Aker said.
Although Thursday’s discovery presents a new mystery for health officials, Aker said they are still working to solve the older mystery of medical wastes found on La Jolla beaches Oct. 29 and 30. Among the waste was a vial of blood, a syringe and a patient’s wristband.
So far, health officials have been able to trace the wristband to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, where hospital authorities have acknowledged that in another incident a former employee of the institution improperly discarded several bags of infectious wastes last month by throwing them into a regular trash bin.
12 to 14 Bags Tossed
A hospital spokesman said 12 to 14 bags of the special waste were tossed in the garbage and hauled to the San Marcos landfill, where they were discovered Oct. 27.
Standard hospital procedure, as dictated by state law, calls for the wastes to be steamed or incinerated. What cannot be burned is put into doubled red bags, then sealed in 55-gallon plastic containers, which are, in turn, locked in special bins to await disposal at designated dump sites.
Tracing the rest of the wastes found last month, however, has been problematic, although Aker said the health department has developed a theory that some of it came from Navy ships.
“There were certain materials that we did find that had marine growth on them,” said Aker. “They had been in the water for some time, so it makes it a lot easier to speculate that it came off a boat or a passing ship than from the shore.”
Aker said the health department contacted the Navy--which admitted it was responsible for the medical wastes that showed up on New Jersey beaches last summer--immediately after the wastes showed up on the La Jolla beaches last month.
“We’ve asked them if there is a possibility that any of the infectious wastes could have been dumped from their ships and washed up on our shores,” Aker said. “They conceded that it might be a remote possibility.”
Ocean Dumping Allowed
Cmdr. David Dillon, spokesman for the Naval Surface Force, Pacific Fleet, said Thursday that common practice on Naval vessels is to steam and then store potentially infectious medical materials until the ship docks. The steaming process is supposed to kill bacteria from the potentially infectious materials, which include blood, cultures, vaccines, body parts, blades, needles, surgical dressings and surgical gloves.
But Navy regulations also allow for throwing the material overboard if it poses a health hazard or becomes an “unacceptable nuisance,” Dillon said. In those cases, which he emphasized are “rare,” the material is sterilized and weighted down with scrap metal so it will sink.
Such dumping must take place at least 50 miles from shore, and a record is kept of the materials thrown overboard, Dillon said.
“Very little is ever dumped,” he said. “The practice in general is . . . they hold on to it and bring it to the shore,” where it is then given to a company hired to dispose of the materials.
Chief Craig Huebler, a spokesman for the commander of the San Diego Naval Base, added Thursday that the medical officer for the Pacific Fleet commander in chief, who has routinely monitored Naval ships in the past two years, said that “there has never been an incident of medical wastes being dumped any place in the Pacific.”
Aker said the health department is even looking at whether the Navy disposes the medical wastes properly after it is brought ashore, as part of a review of what large generators of medical wastes are doing with the potentially dangerous material.
Thursday’s discovery in La Jolla comes one day after the county Board of Supervisors adopted an emergency measure to draw up an ordinance that, for the first time, would slap strict regulations on small generators of medical wastes.
State law now regulates only hospitals and other institutions that throw out more than 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of the waste per month--a threshold that allows smaller doctors’ offices and medical suites to continue to put their syringes and bandages in trash bins.
But, at the urging of Supervisor Susan Golding, the board Wednesday voted unanimously to close that loophole and force the smaller offices to take the same precautions as larger facilities.
The emergency ordinance, expected to come before the board for final approval Nov. 22, also expands the definition of hazardous waste to include blood and urine samples.
“My hope is that, by closing these two major loopholes, we can cut down on what is actually thrown away in the trash,” Golding said.
The change would be applicable only for unincorporated areas of San Diego County, but Golding said Thursday that she is urging all cities in the county to follow suit. She said she has also notified Cliff Allenby, secretary of the state’s Department of Health and Welfare, that she intends to seek state legislation closing the loophole.