Among Santa Monica Bay regulars, the stories have circulated for at least a decade: Five lifeguards working near Santa Monica Pier get cancer. A world-class distance swimmer training off Pacific Palisades comes down with severe stomach flu. Surfers at several beaches complain of rashes and sinus infections.
These reports and dozens of others have led some swimmers to conclude that the bay--Los Angeles' most important natural resource and a magnet for a health-conscious culture--is making them sick.
More than 60 million people visit Los Angeles County beaches each year but, as far as county officials are concerned, almost no one becomes ill. Public health authorities dismiss reports linking the bay's pollution with illness as little more than coastal folklore.
Their assurances, however, have not dampened tales of swimming-related illnesses and, for the first time, a consensus is developing that an attempt should be made once and for all to resolve the question: Is it safe to swim in Santa Monica Bay?
Politicians, health officials and scientists now agree that if they can clear several hurdles--including finding research money and a suitable beach for a controlled scientific study--a major survey should be launched in a cooperative effort.
"We feel that if we are ever going to put this thing to rest, we would need to do a full-scale epidemiological study," said Jack Petralia, the county's director of environmental protection, who has tried for years to assuage public concern.
Environmental activists welcome the news, but many say they are unwilling to wait the two years or longer it could take researchers to design the health survey.
"They can continue to do their scientific surveys," said Pat Hines, the champion ocean swimmer who attributed a severe stomach flu last summer to her workouts in the bay. "All I am asking is that the city and the county warn people in the meantime, in case I am right and they are wrong."
Impatient for results, a surfing doctor from Malibu has already started distributing questionnaires at world-famous Surfrider Beach to assess the health complaints of surfers. And later this month, a group of surfers will plunge into the bay with water-sampling kits.
Health officials say the public should not be alarmed. Although they have documented cases of bay pollution from sewage, toxic spills and contaminated storm drain runoff, water sampling shows that the bay routinely meets bathing standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Occasionally, county health officials have closed beaches to swimmers after major sewage spills and have recommended against entering the water after storms wash pollutants into the ocean.
Scientists doing research for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project--the coalition of government, business and environmental groups that hopes to conduct the massive study--caution that the public will not get answers overnight. They say it takes many months to design a rigorous scientific survey that targets specific sources of pollution and the health problems they may cause.
The Restoration Project's long-range plans call for a health survey that focuses on acute illnesses, such as stomach flus, that may stem from runoff from the more than 60 storm drains that carry debris into the ocean from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
The effect of such runoff on swimmers has never been studied anywhere in the world, said Victor Cabelli, a University of Rhode Island epidemiologist and leading researcher in the field.
"An original study to look at storm water is extremely important nationally and internationally, and particularly in Santa Monica Bay, because you have all those storm drains," said Cabelli, who is advising Restoration Project researchers.
Studies by Cabelli and others have already established that human feces can carry viruses that lead to stomach flu in ocean swimmers. Restoration Project researchers said their project would determine whether soil, fertilizers, animal droppings and other types of organic pollution in runoff can also make people sick.
Because of significant improvements in Los Angeles' sewage treatment, the runoff from storm drains is now considered to be the largest remaining threat to the bay.
"The question on everyone's lips is: Is it safe to swim in Santa Monica Bay? And the worst-case scenario right now is swimming in front of a storm drain," said Mark Gold, a member of the Restoration Project and staff scientist for Heal the Bay, an environmental group. "Our whole point is: If you prove it is safe to swim in front of a storm drain, it is probably safe to assume that it is safe to swim anywhere in the bay."
Such a massive survey would cost at least $2 million, money that has yet to be found, said Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the county's toxics epidemiology program. The Board of Supervisors--heading a bureaucracy that has long pooh-poohed fears about swimming in the bay--voted this spring in support of an epidemiological study and asked county officials to help search for sources of funding.
The study would likely send investigators armed with clipboards and questionnaires to beaches that are believed to be contaminated by storm-drain runoff. They would interview 10,000 people or more, Cabelli said, following up with phone calls to learn if any of the subjects became ill. Statisticians could then compare the rates of illness among those who went swimming with those who did not.
If the rate of illness for the two groups was the same, the study would end there.
But if more ocean bathers than sunbathers got sick, researchers could turn to water samples to determine the level of bacteria that made them ill. Health officials could then use that information to help them decide if they should post warning signs or close beaches when bacteria reaches those concentrations.
For the time being, however, Restoration Project scientists are dealing with the disturbing discovery that a storm drain at the base of Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica was contaminated with human waste. That disclosure in June led them to put their long-range survey plans on hold to hastily begin a review of all storm drains that flow into the ocean.
County officials discount the notion that anyone could get cancer from exposure to the surf, as was suggested by a 1980 magazine article that has since become a part of local lore. Five lifeguards who worked near Santa Monica Pier contracted cancer, according to the article. Only one worked for an extended period near a contaminated storm drain, however, and a survey showed lifeguards did not have a higher incidence of cancer than the rest of the population, county officials said.
Other activists said their illnesses are not explained away so easily.
Hines, who won a swim competition around Manhattan Island in 1986, said she was working out near Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades a little more than a year ago when she noticed that the water "tasted funny and felt funny." She ended her swim prematurely and scrubbed off immediately, but suffered a violent stomach flu for more than a week.
Now Hines will not enter the ocean unless she is at least 5 miles offshore. The 34-year-old advertising consultant has taken her message into Los Angeles schools, where for five years she has held bicycle-safety training sessions and recently has added a talk on the bay. Hines advises children to stay half a mile away from storm drains and to shower thoroughly after swimming.
"I'm not asking anyone to barb-wire the ocean off," Hines said. "I am simply asking them to take some precautions."
Barret Stoller's only precaution in 25 years of surfing in Malibu had been a recent adaptation to earplugs, which seemed to help ward off ear infections. But after surfing for five straight days last month at Surfrider Beach and then developing a severe stomach illness, Stoller said he is reluctant to return to the surf.
The 37-year-old research chemist blames his illness on water from Malibu Lagoon, which state workers periodically release into the storied Malibu surfing ground. Surfers dread the days, about twice a month, when a bulldozer cuts a canal through the sand.
"You see this sort of lime green ooze that comes out in concentric circles," Stoller said. "And you see people leaving the water, sick to their stomachs from the smell and the taste."
County health officials post signs warning that ocean swimming may be hazardous when the lagoon, which catches reclaimed water from a treatment plant, is spilling into the ocean.
Such scenes have many surfers shedding their traditionally laid-back stance and plunging into action.
Dr. Jeff Harris of Malibu, himself a regular at Surfrider Beach, said he has collected about 40 health survey forms from surfers at Malibu who reported that after leaving the water they got sick, mainly with stomach ailments and ear infections. His partners from GeoSurf, a surfing and environmental group, said they will use their findings in an attempt to limit the flow of contamination into Malibu Creek, which feeds the lagoon.
The Huntington Beach-based Surfrider Foundation, meanwhile, plans this month to begin a "Blue Water Task Force," sampling water in the bay and other locations for pollutants. Surfers will take to the water not only with their boards but with hermetically sealed glass sampling vials and temperature-controlled containers to preserve the water for laboratory analysis.
After initial tests of the sampling kits, surfers will be able to call a hot line to report suspected ocean pollution and obtain kits to do their own testing, said Scott Jenkins, a leader of the project and a research engineer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla.
"We hope we will bring such national attention to this problem," Jenkins said, "that the government will be shamed into taking some action."
Use 'Common Sense,' Swimmers Urged
Concern about contamination in the Santa Monica Bay has recently been focused on more than 60 storm drains that carry urban runoff from inland areas to the ocean.
Because the content of the water is often not known, county health officials say "common sense" dictates several precautions when visiting local beaches:
* Avoid contact with storm water where it forms pools or streams across the beach. Contaminants are most concentrated before they reach the ocean.
* Wash off thoroughly after direct contact with storm water.
* Swim at least 25 yards away from the mouths of storm drains.
* Swim on the opposite side of the drain from the prevailing current, which carries contamination with it. Coastal currents in the bay typically flow south, so swimmers should usually enter the water north of storm drains.
* Do not swim for at least 48 hours after a rain, when contamination increases significantly.
Source: county's director of environmental protection, Jack Petralia.