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The Endless Summer Ends : Longtime Surfers Find There's a Medical Price to Pay for the Sport's Lifestyle

March 24, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER

Many dermatologists are reporting increased cases of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as malignant melanoma. They warn that prolonged exposure to the sun can be dangerous as surfers age.

"Each decade of a life in the sun increases the incidents of skin cancer," said Dr. Billie Phelps, a Westside dermatologist who has treated many lifeguards and surfers.

Veteran surfers also suffer from pterygiums, a tissue growth over the cornea of the eye caused by excessive exposure to wind and ultraviolet light.

"Sunlight bouncing off the water makes people such as surfers and sailors more susceptible," said Dr. Troy Elander, a West Los Angeles ophthalmologist. "I've seen dozens of surfers over the years with the problem. Without wearing sunglasses you're at an increased risk."

John Hearne, 45-year-old regional director of the Surfer Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization, now has cataracts on both eyes from sun exposure. The longtime surfer says the vision in his right eye is about 70%, and declining fast. (His other eye is fine).

"I've tried to wear ski-glasses with a leash, but its a hassle in big surf when you're duck-diving under waves," he said. "I tell my kids to always wear their sunglasses as much as possible and to stay out of the midday sun."

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Aside from infirmities caused by the natural elements, many veteran Los Angeles-area surfers believe that water pollution is eclipsing the sunny elements of the sport.

Amid the uncertainty in the scientific world over whether toxins in Santa Monica Bay are making people sick, surfers believe they are unwittingly helping to establish a link between the water and certain illnesses.

"I feel like we're the canaries in the coal mine--we've got this young, healthy group of people that keeps getting sick," said David Saltman, former executive director of the Surfrider Foundation. "It's a shame we're using our youth as front-line guinea pigs, in some sort of bizarre test to measure a deteriorating environment."

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Rainwater washes large amounts of untreated sewage, trash, debris, animal waste, pesticides, motor oil and other substances along a web of concrete rivers and storm drains that empty into Santa Monica Bay. In August, 1993, the American Oceans Campaign, a nonprofit environmental group, completed a two-year study that identified 160 toxic chemicals flowing into the bay from Los Angeles streets.

Mark Gold, a staff scientist at the environmental group Heal the Bay, says his organization has received extensive anecdotal evidence from Santa Monica Bay surfers suffering from a wide range of illnesses that could be related to the pollution, such as stomach flu, skin rashes (surfer's itch), sinus and ear infections.

The level of pollution increases dramatically after storms--bad news for surfers since that is when the waves are best.

And the prime surfing spots are near storm drains, which dump sediment onto a series of points, reefs, and beach breaks. Better shaped waves are produced as swells peel over the buildup.

"You're basically out there surfing these big beautiful waves that look like chocolate milk," Hearne said.

To many medical experts, storm surfing is a horrific combination.

"When diving under a big wave you're getting worked over pretty good," said Dr. Gordon LaBedz, a member of the Surfer's Medical Assn. and a Seal Beach resident. "Bacteria-laden water is being forced into your sinuses. (It) sits in little hollow areas of your skull, which if it runs down, can cause an upper respiratory infection."

Their heads, many veteran surfers say, act like remarkable sponges.

"I remember working in the afternoon as a busboy, hours after I'd gotten out of the water," Hoch said. "It was a formal affair and as I bent over to serve someone, out of my nose rushed all this water. There's nothing you can do. You know it's coming and there it is."

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Many veteran surfers agree one of the most unhealthy places to surf has been Malibu's Surfrider Beach, considered among the best surfing spots in the world.

Excellent waves are produced when the swells hit a curving line of large cobblestones hugging the contour of the beach.

But the beach's geology may be its undoing. The cobblestones come from nearby bacteria-laden Malibu Creek, which flushes out through the Malibu Lagoon. Upstream is the Tapia Water Reclamation Center, which dumps almost 2 million gallons a day of treated effluent into the creek and up to 7 million gallons on rainy days. The creek also picks up bacteria from septic tank runoff, animal waste and refuse from picnickers.

Veteran surfers say that after years of riding the waves there, many have come down with a range of ailments they blame on the water pollution, although doctors cannot say for sure.

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