By Dave Schwab
Staff WriterReports have surfaced that lifeguards at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool may be getting ill from a continuing buildup of harbor seal, seagull, pigeon, rat and squirrel waste at the beach and in the condemned lifeguard tower there.
One lifeguard who works at Children’s Pool, Alex Riley, said he missed a month of work in June after contracting spinal meningitis and being hospitalized for treatment. He is back on the job now but has a claim pending against the city asking for back pay from missed time.
Riley said he feels that Children’s Pool might be a hazardous place to work.
“A lot of us (lifeguards) had respiratory issues off and on this whole past winter,” he said. “There’s definitely issues with air quality around here. The city should take responsibility for this situation. They’re supposed to be able to provide us with a safe, clean working environment, which they have not done.”
San Diego Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts, noting that he couldn’t talk about employees’ illnesses because of federal privacy laws, said, “There has been no established connection” last week when asked to respond to the report.
A county health official, Michele Ginsberg, medical director of the epidemiology and immunization branch in the county’s Health and Human Services Department, who is also bound by those laws, said she could not release how many cases have been reported in a specific area, like La Jolla.
However, said she there had not been “a recent cluster of cases in any one area.”
Asked whether the illness meningitis — inflammation of the meninges, the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord — could be contracted from airborne exposure or by contact with contaminated water, she answered, “It’s highly unlikely, not from exposure to the workplace.”
Another lifeguard stationed at the Children’s Pool, Sgt. Ed Harris, said he couldn’t “positively say that illnesses have resulted from exposure to feces (in and around the pool).” But the problem got serious enough in recent weeks, he added, that guards decided to “borrow a power washer from a construction company and blow away accumulated bird feces” on the roof.
In some spots, he said, it was as much as 2 inches deep. Since then, spikes and other obstacles have been put on the roof to discourage birds from settling there, he added.
Harris described working conditions as “a tough situation” at the temporary lifeguard tower where prevailing winds come in off the beach.
“It’s hard to watch the water when your eyes are watering from the stench of the seals and the birds when it gets really hot in July and August,” he said.
Harris said birds and rodents have nested in the condemned tower and its bathrooms, worsening the situation.
“The lifeguard’s union wants to eradicate anything that might cause illness,” said Harris, noting pest control companies have also been consulted about eradicating troublesome pests.
Harris said First District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s office has been pushing to have the condemned lifeguard tower dismantled earlier rather than later, but thus far has been unsuccessful.
Ginsberg, the county health official, said meningitis is caused by many different agents, but is primarily transmitted person to person through intimate contact via exchange of bodily fluids.
Ginsberg added, “We have to recognize they could have had proximity to other people who may have had exposure, and that could happen almost anywhere.”
Ginsberg said meningitis is one of more than 90 diseases that are must be reported to county authorities. Reports come from medical professionals or laboratories. But typically, Ginsberg added, such reports only occur where there are “clusters,” excessively high numbers of cases in a prescribed area over a small amount of time.
Due to privacy laws, she said she could “We have not had a recent cluster of cases in any one area,” she said, adding 98 cases of viral meningitis were reported the first six months of this year throughout San Diego County.
If a disease like meningitis is reported, Ginsberg said authorities would try to track its source if it’s an extreme case. She said affected individuals are interviewed to see who they’ve been in close contact with, and then those contacts are warned. In the case of clusters in a particular area, health authorities conduct an investigation to attempt to track down the source.