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Bay Pollution Made Her Sick, Swim Champ Claims

Times Staff Writer

Just two weeks ago, city officials urged swimmers to go back into the water in Santa Monica Bay, but world-class swimmer Pat Hines said her experience last weekend shows that the bay can be hazardous to a swimmer’s health.

Hines, a supporter of the Heal the Bay organization, said she plans to distribute 5,000 flyers at Santa Monica beaches this weekend warning that people could get sick from swimming in the water.

Hines said she became violently ill while training in Santa Monica Bay on Saturday. A winner of major swim competitions in Southern California and New York, she blamed the high fever, vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss on bacteria in polluted water between Will Rogers State Beach and the Santa Monica Pier.

The 33-year-old Santa Monica resident called water quality in the bay “just disgusting.”

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But Ellen Alkon, county deputy director of public health, said the water quality is sampled weekly at more than 30 locations in the bay. She said bacterial levels are “very acceptable” for recreational swimming, except in certain posted areas where storm drains discharge into the sea. Beaches are posted whenever unsafe levels of bacteria are found or a sewage spill occurs, she said.

Alkon said the county has no evidence that swimming in the bay is hazardous, although she would not swim near the storm drain outfalls.

“We have had no reports of illness,” she said.

For years, the bay has, at times, been contaminated by partially treated sewage, storm-water runoff and toxic chemicals. Mayor Tom Bradley proposed Tuesday to establish new fees on homes and businesses to finance controls on storm water runoff.

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Until very recently, discharges from Los Angeles’ Hyperion sewage treatment plant consistently failed to meet federal water quality standards. Two weeks ago, John Crosse, Hyperion’s operations manager, said the plant’s discharge is the cleanest ever into the bay.

“We have worked our tails off to achieve this,” Crosse said. “We hope the public gets the message and starts using the beaches more.”

On Wednesday, Bradley spokesman Bill Chandler said there has not been a sewage spill within the last 10 days.

But within half a mile of the beach, Hines said, the water is “incredibly filthy.” The visibility is so poor that she can barely see her hands while swimming. Hines also claimed that the water discolors bathing caps and destroys nylon bathing suits.

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“I think people don’t realize the horrors of the poisons in the bay,” she said.

Hines, who won the women’s division of an eight-hour, 31-mile swim around Manhattan Island in 1986, said the water quality in the bay is far worse than the East River.

“I see less garbage in the East River than Santa Monica Bay,” Hines said. “The East River is getting cleaner while the Santa Monica Bay is getting dirtier,” she said. “If I spent eight hours in Santa Monica Bay, I’d look like I had leprosy.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bottom sediments in the bay are contaminated with DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls--PCBs--and heavy metals. Health warnings have been issued against eating white croaker fish from the bay.

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EPA spokeswoman Lois Grunwald said beaches have been closed periodically “due to potential threats to human health posed by high bacterial levels” from sewage discharges into bay waters.

Jacqueline Snow, a nurse practitioner in Santa Monica who saw Hines, said her symptoms this week were “very likely caused by swimming in the bay.”

Snow suggested that the sudden onset of the illness after swimming suggested that Hines had come in contact with salmonella or E. coli bacteria, commonly associated with sewage. But Health Services Department spokeswoman Toby Staheli said she was not aware of any closures of beaches in Santa Monica Bay over the weekend.

Hines, who handles promotions for a radio station, said she became ill after failing to follow her usual procedure of scrubbing herself off and showering immediately after swimming.

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