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A Coastline Under Assault : Latest Wave of Medical Waste Washes Up, Is Tied to Military

Times Staff Writer

Shorelines from Pacific Beach to Solana Beach were dotted Tuesday with yet another influx of medical wastes, including a roll of camouflaged gauze bandages and an intravenous bag that health officials have linked to the military.

Gary Stephany, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, said the bandages and intravenous bag, which were sold to the U.S. Defense Department, were the best clues to date of the possible origin of medical wastes that have been plaguing San Diego beaches for more than two weeks.

Source Remains Unclear

But Stephany admitted that health officials are still far from identifying the source of the medical refuse, which he emphasized was not infectious. He added that he is backing away from his speculation last week that most of the medical waste was being dumped by Navy ships.

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“To put the blame on the Navy right now would be premature,” Stephany said. “I’m not so sure it isn’t still coming out of the trash of land-based operations.”

Tuesday’s reports of medical wastes were, by far, the most numerous in a string of incidents that began Oct. 29, when beach-goers found a vial of blood, a syringe with attached needle and a patient’s identification wristband near Black’s Beach. The next day, other items of medical waste washed up at La Jolla Shores.

Subsequent discoveries of waste have been concentrated along the La Jolla beach, but Tuesday’s incidents found the materials spread throughout the county.

In all, health officials picked up waste at beaches in Pacific Beach, La Jolla Shores, Del Mar, Solana Beach and San Elijo State Beach. They also received reports of waste in Imperial Beach and Oceanside, but harried health officials won’t be able to pick up those items until today, Stephany said.

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Lifeguards Alerted

One of the first reports came Tuesday morning, when a jogger alerted lifeguards in Del Mar that medical wastes were brought up by the tide between Powerhouse Park and Torrey Pines State Beach.

Items recovered include the camouflage bandages; a full intravenous bag of dextrose bearing the expiration date of September, 1988; a syringe with a hypodermic needle; three vials containing a white, powdery substance; a plastic container for washing and storing contact lenses, and a tube of Xerox fuser lubricant.

Stephany said his department traced the bandages to Fraass Survival Inc., a New York manufacturer.

“We called the man in New York and he told us the lot number we gave him were for bandages that were manufactured in 1984 and sold to the Defense Department,” he said. “They were distributed across the United States to the regional centers. I don’t think we can trace it any further than that.”

Stephany also said the bag of dextrose was traced to Travenol Laboratories Inc., a Deerfield, Ill., company that confirmed that the bag bore a lot number for medical supplies sold to the military. The company also manufactured and sold to the military two intravenous bags that were found among medical waste at La Jolla Shores on Monday, Stephany said.

That connection, along with the presence of the copier lubricant, now has health officials theorizing that the medical wastes originated from a hospital or research laboratory with contracts or grants from the military. Possibilities include UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Veterans Administration hospital and military clinics, Stephany said.

The items recovered in Solana Beach include nine 1-ounce bottles of iodine and some bandages, Stephany said. He couldn’t describe the rest of the items, however, because they hadn’t been brought to his office yet by health crews dispatched to the beaches.

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‘Silver Packets’ Found

In Pacific Beach, city lifeguard David Mico said Tuesday that the items recovered near Crystal Pier included a syringe with no needle and a container filled with “silver packets.” The syringe was found in the water by a man riding a Boogie board.

While San Diego health officials were busy cleaning up the beaches, their counterparts in Orange County also linked the military to 70 or so “mystery vials” that washed ashore Monday and Tuesday. They said the vials contain chemicals, developed for the military, to combat the effects of chemical and biological warfare. The chemicals, described as antiseptics, are not dangerous to the skin but should not be taken internally, officials said.

“Circumstantially, it looked like it was dumped by the military,” said John J. Hills, program manager for the Orange County Environmental Health Waste Management Section.

“These are highly unusual events,” Bob Borzelleri of the California Deparment of Health Services said of the incidents in the two counties. “We basically have onshore winds and onshore currents, and if that stuff were happening routinely in California, we’d know about it all the time.”

Borzelleri is chief of external affairs for the department’s toxic-substances control division.

Neither Orange County nor San Diego County has requested assistance from either the state health department or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in investigating the source of the material that has washed ashore, state and federal officials said.

Times staff writer Bill Billiter in Orange County and Robert W. Stewart in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

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