Uninvited visitors have wormed their way into Hawthorne's kitchens and bathrooms.
A minor infestation of bloodworms--larvae of the gnat-like midge--is forcing the city to purge its municipal water system, which serves about half of Hawthorne's 12,000 households and businesses.
The scarlet creatures, although unnerving to residents who have been finding them in their water glasses and bathtubs since last week, do not pose a health hazard, officials say.
"When they first come out, they're in little balls and bright red and it takes them a few minutes to uncurl," said Grace La Force, whose son had an unpleasant encounter with the pests in his bath. "I called the Water Department and told them I had done had my worms for the day. I knew I didn't want to eat 'em."
State water officials investigating the infestation say it is rare to find bloodworms in drinking and bathing water because suppliers usually keep their reservoirs and tanks covered.
"Nobody knows how they got into (Hawthorne's tanks) but vents are one way for them to get in or sometimes the tanks are not covered properly," said David Adam, a sanitary engineer for the state Health Department's division of drinking water and environmental management.
Hawthorne officials began flushing city water tanks and adding extra chlorine to the water supply Tuesday. They hope to finish purging the water supply by Oct. 9 and, once they are done, will ask customers to flush out their pipes by removing filters from spigots and running the cold water tap for 20 minutes.
"There's not a health consideration," said Tom Quintana, Hawthorne's public information director. "The problem is more of an aesthetic one."
Despite such assurances, some residents are drinking and cooking with bottled water--and sticking to sponge baths--until the water system is worm-free.
Or as La Force said: "I put my hands in the water as little as possible."
Midges are tiny flies resembling mosquitoes, though they do not bite humans, said Rosser Garrison, an agricultural entomologist for Los Angeles County's Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures Department. The adults lay their eggs on the surface of ponds or lakes, where they hatch into larvae, known as bloodworms because their blood supply contains hemoglobin, he said. They are not bloodsuckers, however.
"They're really kind of cute and they are very useful in aquatic ecosystems," Garrison said. "They can serve as a good food supply for other insects and fish. They also help to recycle nutrients into the bottom of the pond."