‘La Jolla Cove: Health Risk?’ Lifeguards, swimmers report illness after contact with waters

Of the sandy beach at La Jolla Cove, lifeguard Ed Harris said, ‘Everyday there’s serious amounts of sea lion feces being deposited in the sand. Sea lions lay on it, and they sleep on it, mixing it into the sand, and then humans walk right through it.’

The La Jolla Light has learned that five lifeguards associated with The Cove have reported skin infections in the past few months. Of the five, four were stationed at the popular swimming beach and all of them were making rescues and doing workouts in its waters.

Ed Harris, a steward for the lifeguard union Teamsters 911, confirmed the claims. “I have been working in the area for 27 years, and in past years I can’t remember another case of staph infection at The Cove.”

Bacteria Exceedance Advisories have been posted by the San Diego County health authorities for the waters off La Jolla Cove since the beginning of summer. A chronic advisory for the beach has been standing since Sept. 1. However, according to county water athorities, the bacteria used for state law-mandated testing of water quality (total coliform, fecal coliform and enterococci), are not a risk for human health. Instead, they are used to indicate the presence of a health risk.

La Jolla Cove Swim Club member Bob West said he got sick in April for the first time in 40 years of swimming at The Cove. He had to be hospitalized for nine days as a consequence of a bacterial skin infection. “I had a 104-degree temperature, my leg was swollen to twice its size, and I was having trouble with mental clarity,” he told the Light.

Three months afterward, West went back to The Cove and a fall on the stairs caused him an abrasion. “Two days later, I got the same leg swollen up huge and I had a 104-degree fever and I was in the hospital for 5 days,” he explained.

Most times a patient’s illness has little likelihood of being linked to something in the water unless it is multiple people with a similar illness”

Shawn Evans, M.D. at Scripps Health

The bacteria West was infected with, Vibrio parahaemoliticus and Vibrio alginolyticus, respectively, occur only in salt or brackish water. Microbial geneticists and bio chemist Anca Segall, a professor on sabbatical at San Diego State University elaborated, “This is a bacteria whose habitat is coastal and estuary water, so it lives essentially everywhere around the coast. It’s considered an incidental human pathogen.”

Segall is one of the authors of “Genome Sequences of Two Closely Related Vibrio parahaemolyticus Phages, VP16T and VP16C.” She said this bacteria is a common cause of human illness through food poisoning. “It predominantly causes foodborne infections when people eat shellfish, like oysters, filter-feeder organisms that tend to concentrate the bacteria in the water.”

However, she added this bacteria can cause skin infections due to the exposure of open wounds to sea water that contains the vibrio bacteria. “Old people (who have contact with Vibrio parahaemolyticus) as well as young people are more susceptible to infections, whereas a normal adult, let’s say ages 20-60, will see relatively mild or no symptoms; someone with an immune system that’s going down will have more severe symptoms.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80,000 people a year suffer illness from Vibrio bacteria in the United States, mostly from May to October when the warmer waters help these organisms thrive. Of those, 52,000 are estimated to be the result of eating contaminated food.

San Diego County health officials have posted signs at La Jolla Cove warning swimmers of unsafe bacteria levels in the water.
San Diego County health officials have posted signs at La Jolla Cove warning swimmers of unsafe bacteria levels in the water.
(Daniel K. Lew )

The County of San Diego said it has received notification of two cases of Vibrio infections with local water exposure so far in 2016. “By contrast, in 2015 there were 10 reported cases involving local water exposure,” said communications officer Alex Bell.

Segall said a correlation between the increase in the sea lion population at The Cove and the reported Vibrio skin infections cannot be made. “They don’t require a mammalian host, if anything, they are more associated with shellfish, especially filter feeders. But they live in water, they don’t need to be associated with any animal whatsoever, they do with whatever nutrients there are in the water column.”

Details about the illnesses of lifeguards are classified within the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but the “staph infection” diagnosis was often connected to it. Staph infections are caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that commonly lives in humans.

Shawn Evans, M.D. at Scripps Health, said in his opinion, a staph infection would more likely be transmitted by gear sharing among lifeguards than the water. “It’s probably more related to their work environment than the water,” he said.

However, lifeguard Harris pointed out the number of staph cases reported in the past few months is significant. “In the lifeguard service, we get a report of one staph infection every couple of years, to get five connected to The Cove facility or that beach in a three-month period is pretty concerning.”

The City declined to comment on the health of lifeguards due to HIPAA. Public information officer Anthony Santacroce added, “HIPAA and workers’ compensation legislation prevent the City from commenting. The city has never commented on the causality of any illnesses claimed.”

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What’s changed at The Cove?

Two events that traditionally took place at The Cove (The Rough Water Swim and the swimming leg of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge) had to be moved to the La Jolla Shores or cancelled this fall due to the bacteria advisories issued by the County Health Department. The lifeguards have suspended all workouts in the water, but, as Harris put it, “Lifeguards will always make rescues ... bacteria hazard, whatever, we will always make rescues.”

He said the lifeguards at The Cove have intensified their hygiene routines. “They are very consistent now about getting in the shower, cleaning everything with bleach and filing exposure reports after they go in the water,” he said.

Harris pointed out that another problem at The Cove is the sand.

In his opinion, it’s dangerous for people to be in contact with the polluted sand. “Kids are there daily doing sand castles and then eating sandwiches with their hands. No one is telling them that they are sitting on feces of these animals (sea lions),” he said.

Lifeguards are also performing medical assists on the sand.

“It’s ironic to be in the middle of a puddle of crap trying to do a rescue,” Harris said. Pictured with this report is the 20-square-foot area where lifeguards tended to an 11-year-old after a recent rescue. “We were almost throwing up because the smell was so bad,” he said.

Another ramification of this issue, according to Harris, is the difficulty finding experienced lifeguards to work at The Cove. “At the rocky areas of La Jolla (Children’s Pool and The Cove), because of the topography lifeguards take a long time to become really good at the area. The senior guards no longer want to do workouts there, so we get new guards every year.”

Other illnesses

Many members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club have reportedly changed their swimming spot from The Cove to La Jolla Shores, including West. Club president Dan Simonelli said, “There’s been a significant increase in people talking about it and claiming that they have gotten skin or gastrointestinal infections in the last several months.”

Cove swimmer Steve Coppersmith added, “I’ve either had ear problems or cold/flu symptoms regularly that I’m certain are caused by the (Cove) water quality.” Stephen Cross, who said swims at The Cove four times a week, reported to be recovering from a bacteria infection. One anonymous swimmer reported a lung infection.

On the topic, Dr. Evans said, “Most times a patient’s illness has little likelihood of being linked to something in the water unless it is multiple people with a similar illness from the same source. The likelihood of a salt water exposure resulting in some form of illness is exceedingly remote. After storms with pollution entering the water, the risk goes up, but we cannot precisely link the illness to the saltwater exposure.”

The source of the contamination at The Cove is, arguably, the growing sea lion population. Although the measured bacteria (fecal indicator bacteria) are present in both human and animal feces, the presence of sea lion waste in the area is apparent. Citing the report Doyle Hanan, Ph.D., of Hanan & Associates, Inc. submitted to the City in July, “The accumulation of animal waste in close proximity to urbanized and frequently used space raises concerns for public health and welfare, and for the safety of people and wild animals in close proximity to one another.”

Although the fact that sea lions are a different species makes it safer for humans to swim in sea lion fecal contaminated water than it would be to swim in human waste, there are possibilities for cross contamination or zoonosis, a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Evans added, “The closer the species, the more likely they are to possess similar bacteria that are going to be a problem with humans.”

Studies of sea lion and human cross contamination are yet to be done, but the research paper “Marine Mammal Zoonoses: A Review of Disease Manifestations,” (T. B. Waltzek, G. Cortés-Hinojosa, J. F. X. Wellehan Jr. and Gregory C. Gray, 2011) lists diseases that can be transmitted between marine mammals and humans. Among those, pinnipeds are mentioned in brucellosis, tuberculosis, renal failure, conjunctivitis, mycoplasmosis (seal finger) and dermatitis. Other symptoms listed are lethargy, headaches and sinusitis.

Harris elaborated, “They can tell me all day long (that there’s no study for sea lion cross contamination illnesses), but we see the incredible amount of feces on that beach. I’m no scientist, but I don’t have to do a test to know that the beach has high amounts of bacteria. It’s literally covered in feces.”