More than 1,000 hypodermic needles washed ashore at Huntington Beach on Thursday afternoon, forcing the closure of more than two miles of shoreline, authorities said.
The first needles were discovered by a city lifeguard at about 3:30 p.m. Soon the devices were surfacing hundreds at a time, prompting Orange County health officials to declare the beach off-limits and order it roped off with yellow police tape.
By nightfall the closure stretched north from the state beach at Magnolia Avenue to just beyond the city pier--including an area that was already subject to health warnings because of elevated bacteria levels that have plagued Huntington Beach on and off since midsummer.
Steve Seim, the city's marine safety captain, expressed dismay at the number of needles that were recovered. "It was so massive," he said. "They were coming in clumps" of several hundred needles at a time.
Health officials were unable identify the type of needle. Larry Honeybourne, chief of the Orange County Health Care Agency's water quality section, said they did not appear to have been used. Nonetheless, they were being treated as if they were hazardous.
"We asked [lifeguards] to get people out of the water and rope off the areas," Honeybourne said.
After ordering surfers out of the water, city lifeguards began collecting the needles, which Seim said will be turned over to the Orange County district attorney's office for investigation.
With at least one exception, the needles that were recovered were not connected to syringes. While the sharp pointed ends were covered by blue plastic sheathes, thin metal tubes extending from the opposite ends were exposed. Even the blunt ends appeared sharp enough to pierce the skin.
Officials said the source of the needles was a mystery. "They may have fallen off a ship or been dumped at sea," Honeybourne said. "What we're hoping is that something else washes ashore that might give us a lead as to where they came from, such as a label or a box."
Seim said a southern swell in the ocean current had spread the needles to the north. At each end of the polluted area, the beach was closed for at least 500 feet beyond where the devices were found.
Six lifeguards wearing gloves and heavy shoes combed the beach, collecting the needles in buckets. "They know not to expose themselves to the needle," Seim said.
He warned the public not to venture beyond the police tape. "If you do find a needle on the beach, don't handle it," he said. "Contact one of our patrol units so that we can remove it."
As darkness fell Thursday, the number of needles washing ashore seemed to be abating. The beach remained closed for the night, and a search for additional needles was to resume this morning, Seim said.
News of the discovery came as Seim and Honeybourne were at an afternoon meeting about the city's other environmental pollution problem: bacteria elevations that caused weeks of beach closures this summer.
When Seim heard about the needles, he said, he told the others, "You wouldn't believe what has happened."
On one small section of beach, warning signs were taken down at 3:15 p.m. because bacteria levels had subsided, only to be replaced 15 minutes later when the needles were discovered.
"People are almost getting used to it," Seim said of the closures.
Thursday's discovery was yet another blow to the city of Huntington Beach, one of the most popular shore areas in Southern California and the site of national and international surfing competitions.
Sections of the beach have been closed, opened and reclosed since July 1, when health officials found high levels of bacteria in the water, including extremely high levels of enterococcus--known to cause gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.
The beaches were opened in time for the Labor Day holiday, then closed again the following week when traces of fecal contamination reappeared.
To the frustration of city officials, health investigators have yet to pinpoint the source of the bacteria.
"We have had many years with a reputation as a good clean beach," city spokesman Jim Hanggi said Thursday. "Hopefully people will realize this is just bad luck."
For San Bernardino residents Erica Smith and Diego Chavez, both 18, the most recent incident was the last straw after a summer of frustration.
"We came over here and thought the beach was open," Smith said. "They're always having problems with the water down here, so now we go to Newport Beach or Laguna."
Chavez said he doesn't think he will come back Huntington Beach.
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The Orange County Health Care Agency on Thursday again closed parts of Huntington State Beach and Huntington City Beach, this time because of needles that washed ashore.