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‘Mystery Vials,’ Medical Waste Found on Beaches Linked to Military by Officials

Times Staff Writers

The 4-inch “mystery vials” that washed ashore in Orange County this week and at least some of the medical waste found on San Diego County beaches in recent days have been tied to the military, health officials said Tuesday.

The 70 or so vials discovered on beaches in Orange County on Monday and Tuesday contain chemicals, developed for the military, that are intended to combat the effects of chemical and biological warfare, the officials said. The chemicals, described as anti-septics, are not dangerous to the skin but should not be taken internally.

“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.

Among the debris that washed ashore Tuesday in San Diego County was a roll of camouflaged gauze bandages that has been traced to a stock of hospital supplies purchased in 1984 by the Department of Defense, officials said.

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The bandages supply perhaps the most solid clue to the possible origin of at least some of the wastes that have been washing up on San Diego beaches since late October, said Gary Stephany, director of the county’s Department of Health Services.

However, Stephany said, officials are still far from identifying the precise source of the potentially hazardous materials, which have included a vial of blood, a syringe with an attached needle and three bags used for intravenous feeding.

“These are highly unusual events,” Bob Borzelleri of the California Department 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 yet 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.

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A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services said Tuesday that officials at his agency could not recall an incident in which medical wastes had washed ashore in either San Pedro or Santa Monica bays.

However, Ralph Lopez of the environmental health and health facilities unit said, “All of us can remember some incidents throughout the county where you’d have some (illegally disposed of) paraphernalia found in a dumpster, or something like that.”

State law strictly regulates the disposal of medical wastes, although it exempts facilities that each month produce fewer than 220 pounds of such wastes from strict monitoring requirements, a state health official said.

The Orange County vials began washing ashore Monday morning along 30 miles of county beaches after a night of rainstorms. About 60 vials were found Monday, Hills said, and about 10 more washed ashore Tuesday. Environmental experts, puzzled at the unusual look of some of the vials, initially tested them to see if they were explosive.

In the meantime, a chemical manufacturer contacted Orange County health officials and told them that the vials “were produced for military use in decontaminating persons exposed to chemical and biological agents during chemical and/or biological warfare,” Hills said.

“We have contacted the commander of the Naval Shipyard at Long Beach, and he has indicated he will assist us in identifying the contents of the vials and in determining the possible source,” Hills said. He said a state law prohibits dumping at sea and provides a fine of up to $25,000 a day.

In San Diego County, the medical waste that washed ashore Tuesday is the latest in a string of incidents that began Oct. 29, when beachgoers found a vial of blood, a syringe with attached needles 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 the waste have been concentrated along the La Jolla beach, but Tuesday’s incidents found the materials spread throughout the county.

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Stephany said his department traced the camouflaged bandages to 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,” he added. “I don’t think we can trace it any further than that.”

Stephany said the bandages, along with a bottle of copier lubricant that also washed ashore, have health officials believing that the medical wastes originated from any land-based hospital or research laboratory that has contracts or connections with the military. UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Veterans Administration hospital and military clinics could all be sources.

San Diego County health officials also said they had traced three intravenous bags found on the beaches to a Deerfield, Ill., company, which confirmed that they were part of a lot sold to the military. No further details were available.

Frammolino reported from San Diego and Billiter from Orange County. Times staff writer Robert W. Stewart contributed to this article.


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