It runs beneath us – Bio waste response

Last month untreated biological waste washed up at Dockweiler Beach in Southern California. Various disgusting items from needles to condoms were part of the ‘medical waste spill’ as it was referred to in the local media. This event happened right in front of a wastewater treatment facility for the Los Angeles area.  Depending on the municipality, a sewer spill could involve multiple agencies such as Sanitation/Public works, Public Health, Streets Department, Coast Guard, Police and Fire.  Although not acutely dangerous like a cloud of Chlorine, quick resolution to these events is vital to public safety and health, the environment, and the local economy.  Small or large agency, it may be time to review your sewer spill response.

News Video of the incident:

According to the Daily Breeze:

Los Angeles city sanitation officials said the material likely was the result of last week’s heavy rains inundating systems at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near El Segundo, forcing a discharge through an ocean outfall pipe that had not been used in a decade.

‘This debris may have been gathering in that outfall for close to 10 years, as that outfall has been dormant during that time,’ according to LA Sanitation, a division of the city Department of Public Works. “The peak storm flow from last week may have impacted the screening process filtering these types of items and was compounded by the first flush through the one-mile outfall.”

It is not uncommon for the Fire Department and/or HazMat team to be contacted for sewer related events and the question becomes:  what is Bio waste? and what is Medical waste?   Speaking by the regulations,  only waste created by ‘action in the delivery of healthcare’ is medical waste.  Potentially infectious or contaminated means ‘the presence or the reasonably anticipated presence of blood or other potentially infectious materials on the surface or in or on an item’ so I would say sewer condoms, tampons, needles, etc would qualify as bio-hazardous waste.   This is probably not a shocker to most.

Likely by last resort, everyone has had the displeasure to use a portable toilet in their lifetime and dared to look down the ‘pit’.  Everything a body can produce combined with waste like needles (we shall assume all needles are contaminated) can and let’s face it DOES end up in the sanitary sewer.   A network of pipes designed to carry human waste to a facility for treatment.  In the case here in LA, quite a bit of new ‘waste’ is added to the system 24/7.

The waste which ended up on the beach in Southern California does not appear to have made it through any treatment process which means the notion that this waste may have come from ‘the outfall’ is confusing.  The system in the dry Los Angeles Basin is overwhelmed as even small amounts of rainfall tax the system so a theory could be that this waste was diverted (intentionally or unintentionally).  If feces wasn’t enough to ruin a beach day, the condoms and needles provided the ‘turd’ in the punch bowl.

According to Heal the Bay:

People have asked Heal the Bay if personal hygiene items, condoms and other types of medical trash are dumped into the sea when wastewater is discharged out of the normally used 5-mile outfall. Are we just seeing this waste on our shores now because the one-mile outfall is being employed? Is this trash normally unseen five miles out to sea?

Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of LA San, tells us that during normal operations of the treatment plant that none of this debris should make its way through the system. His team is aggressively trying to track down the cause of the trash field, but initial reports indicated that recent heavy rains may have played a part.

When it rains heavily, much larger volumes of water than normal move through the treatment system and capture systems can be overwhelmed. Treatment plants are primarily designed to handle biodegradable solids, not plastic waste flushed down toilets by careless people. Usually, these personal items are filtered in the beginning of the treatment process, but all bets are off when heavy flows come into the plant.

As first responders we get to experience working around blood pathogens and human waste regularly.  Any of you who are also part of EMS can attest to BSI (Body Substance Isolation) and should have a good working knowledge of PPE and keeping your work off you as best as possible.  If a sewer medical waste incident could be in your future, have a plan for PPE and your remediation options.

It can and does happen where a rescue operation may involve sewer waste as in the case workman killed by fumes in sewer.  Review your local options and meet with your agency which handles Sanitation.  It is better to have a plan and test it than be scrambling on that Holiday weekend event.





  1. Having taken nearly daily swims in Bitter Lake last smmuer, I was relieved to hear that the sewage outfall is a very recent event, not a longstanding occurrence. I hope that this incident raises awareness of the need to work to keep the lake free of pollution from runoff and outfall pipes. It is a beautiful resource for wildlife and the community to have.

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