Hepatitis A and enterovirus were found last fall by a UCI researcher in Laguna Niguel gutters and storm drains that flow into Aliso Creek and eventually into the ocean at a popular surfing spot in Laguna Beach.
County health care officials who have known of the results since late November say there is no proven risk and that much of the runoff from the area already is being diverted to a sewage treatment plant. They say they are awaiting results from further testing.
"There's some unanswered questions," said Larry Honeybourne, chief of the Orange County Health Care Agency's water quality division. "Further testing needs to be done."
But critics say officials should have notified the public and erred on the side of caution by closing the creek and the beach.
"There's guys down there surfing right now," said Roger von Butow, founder of the Clean Water Now Coalition, who publicized the results Friday. "It shows you can't even trust your own government."
Alex Helperin, a senior project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he understands that the county and the city need to avoid unnecessary public panic. However, a potentially dangerous health risk is present, he said.
"They got positive [hepatitis and enterovirus] results . . . and have done nothing since? That is reckless and insensitive to the public health they're supposed to be protecting," he said.
Hepatitis A can cause fever, nausea, abdominal discomfort, loss of appetite and jaundice. It can be mild, lasting a few weeks, or in rare cases, it can be life-threatening. Enterovirus--the second most-common human virus--can cause colds, gastrointestinal problems, meningitis and childhood fevers.
More than a year ago, state water officials ordered Laguna Niguel and county officials to clean up long-polluted Aliso Creek, which drains 34 square miles from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific Ocean off Laguna Beach.
Their efforts have included numerous pollution studies. One study last September by UCI scientist Sunny Jiang detected hepatitis A in four samples and enterovirus in three samples from gutters and streets that drain into a storm channel, which drains into Sulphur Creek, a tributary of Aliso Creek. The findings were submitted in a report to state water officials Nov. 30. County and local officials also were notified at regular meetings on the creek cleanup.
But health care officials say the testing is inconclusive, with no proven immediate risk.
County epidemiologist Dr. Hildy Meyers said the two viruses likely came from sewage. But other tests there showed no sewage present, she said.
"Some results are not consistent with other results, which raises more questions than answers," she said.
Laguna Niguel public works director Ken Montgomery said the city is awaiting more research by UCI. Attempts to reach Jiang were unsuccessful.
Honeybourne noted that the creek and its mouth are already posted with signs advising against swimming and that county health officials always advise swimmers and surfers to avoid the ocean for 72 hours after a storm.
Water flowing from the residential area has been diverted to a sewage treatment plant during dry weather since May 30. But during rainy days, when the plant cannot handle all the flow, the water is allowed to flow untreated into the ocean off Laguna Beach.
High swells during storms often bring out die-hard surfers, who have said the ride is worth the potential health risks.
The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which issued the cleanup order, said they had not had time to fully investigate the study, according to executive officer John Robertus.
Wayne Baglin, the board's chairman and a Laguna Beach city councilman, said he had not been informed about the study results until this week and that he definitely wants to find out more. "It's very alarming," he said.
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A UCI researcher found hepatitis A and enterovirus in water that drains into a storm channel leading to Sulphur Creek.