By Bruce A. Smith
An Insider’s Story of the Medical Waste Wash-Ups in New York during the Summer of 1988 and Current Update
In the summer of 1988, the beaches of New York and New Jersey were hit with wash-ups of syringes and slimy medical wastes, including bloody bandages. The gunk, particularly the syringes, still comes ashore, but no one knows about it because the media doesn’t report it, and the beach managers and politicians keep it a secret. But I’ll tell you what I know, and what I think is occurring.
In 1988, I was the owner and founder of Sandsifter Beachcleaning Company, the biggest commercial beachcleaning service in the metropolitan New York area. My clients were many of the small and mid-sized beaches of Long Island and the Jersey Shore. I was also the area representative for Cherrington Beachcleaner, the manufacturer of the machines I used to sift the sands. Through my efforts to sell and service these machines I became acquainted with most of the mangers of the major beaches in the area.
The ’88 wash-ups radicalized me to become an environmental activist, and it was also my first experience with governmental cover-up and media complicity.
The needles first appeared on the July 4th weekend of 1988, and wash-ups continued intermittently through the first two weeks of August. Approximately eight-hundred syringes were found scattered along the coast during this six-week period, and by mid-summer the needle wash-ups also included a nasty matrix of bandages, ooze, and floating medical wastes. The noxious mix drove people from the beaches and the ocean. Besides not swimming, people stopped fishing and boating. I read in the newspapers that the NY-NJ economy took a $7 billion hit, and perhaps the size of that loss is what blunted the investigation into why the syringes came ashore in such numbers and who was responsible.
Nevertheless, at the time environmental agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA), offered plausible scenarios to explain the wash-ups, suggesting a tragic confluence of weather, badly engineered sewers beneath the streets of New York City, and irresponsible diabetics tossing their syringes down the toilet. However, that story doesn’t jive with information shared with me over a cup of coffee by a grunt-level US-EPA worker during a break at a Congressional hearing on the wash-ups in the winter of 1989, who told me they found a concentrated plume-trail of syringes gushing along the shoreline of Staten Island from a spot known as North Beach. This led me to believe that the syringes were an intentional dump at one location by a small group of bad actors.
But the syringe wash-ups and a one-time disposal does not connect with other environmental disasters occurring at the same time and in the same waters, such as the unprecedented die-off of nearly one-thousand Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of New Jersey, nor the historic hypoxia event in the western third of Long Island Sound where over 100 square miles of water ran out of oxygen.
These events and other long-term problems, such as a 90% decrease in the production of seaweed in Long Island’s waters during the eight years I cleaned beaches, suggest a larger problem, and it compelled me to take an active role in environmental advocacy. I joined the Citizens Advisory Group of the Long Island Sound Study (LISS), a joint Federal, state, and local clean-up program. Also, I became a member of a professional association of solid-waste handlers and sewage treatment operators on Long Island, and became well acquainted with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS-DEC) findings on marine-related matters, such as contamination of seafood from pollution, and beach closings due to sewage.
But to understand these larger tragedies, it is best to start at the beginning with the syringes and follow the story as it unravels.
The official narrative for the source of the ’88 medical waste is rooted in a mis-appropriation of actual fact, namely, the manner in which New York City handles sewage and rain on its streets. New York City, especially in Manhattan, routes much of its street storm water into its sewer system. It’s called a Combined Sewer Overflow system (CSO), and is typical engineering of the older cities along the East Coast. New York’s system is built to handle the average flow of sewage, plus a rainfall of one-quarter inch-per-hour. Any more and the whole kit-and-caboodle of excess rain, toilet flushes, and street trash diverts past the sewage treatment plants and dumps directly into the waters of New York Harbor.
According to the New York Times, the EPA estimated in 1988 that NYC diverted 10% of its CSO flow directly into area waterways, with only a bit of chlorine sprinkled on top of the nasties before the big flush hit the bays, rivers, and ocean shores.
According to officials in the investigation, the summer temperatures of 1988 were above average. These statements were later contradicted by follow-up investigations by environmental activists. Regardless, I sure remember sweltering in 1988 through humid 90 degree-plus weather coming up from the Gulf of Mexico on steady southwest winds, triggering daily thunderstorms throughout the metropolitan New York area.
The rain from these storms far exceeded the CSO’s limit. So a daily wall of water rushed down sewer pipes throughout metro New York, overwhelming many of the 114 area sewage treatment plants. Much of NYC’s waste had to be diverted directly into the Hudson and East Rivers, Jamaica Bay, western Long Island Sound, and the mouth of the harbor.
The NYC region has 430 CSO discharge points, and with the 10% diversion it’s plausible to assume a few of the city estimated 150 million syringes used each year end up in the harbor. But thousands on our beaches? And why only 1988? These are the first troubling questions to arise in the syringe mystery.
Nevertheless, in the first of many acts of faulty leadership, no public official told the citizenry to refrain from flushing a toilet during a thunderstorm, thus attempting to limit the amount of sewage entering New York’s maritime waters. It might have been a simple, albeit small and partial solution to a big problem. At least such an effort would have pointed out the inadequacies of our cities and given our political leadership some measure of public support to improve the system.
The initial official explanations for the syringes claimed they came from heroin addicts throwing their needles away in the gutters, and the rain washed them down into the sewers. The updated version, circa 2006 to the current era, shifts the blame to diabetics and toilet-hardy syringes. But the fact that I never saw a syringe on a beach before or after 1988 defeats that speculation, and tells me that something special happened in 1988 besides the weather.
I have revisited the syringe story with some of my current environmental activist friends, such as Cindy Ziff of Clean Ocean Action, and they tell me the syringe wash-ups continue to this day. Even my cousin found a bag of used needles at Robert Moses State Park in 2010. Further, Ziff feels that the larger problems are sourced, in part, to long-term pollution and degradation of the ocean. She told me that her organization has discovered toxic chemicals dumped during WWII are slowly leaking from their containment barrels on the bottom of the sea off the coast of New Jersey. But these findings are now hidden by media-savvy beach managers and politicians.
Back in 1988, rather than needles washing into the sewers during rain storms, I thought the source of the syringes was to be found in changes to the disposal of medical wastes from hospitals and doctors’ offices. Through the late 1970s and 1980s, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Health Organizations (JCAHO) became more aggressive on the disposal of hazardous medical waste because of the AIDS epidemic, which fueled the public’s anxiety into hyper-space. As a result, hospital administrators were compelled to label virtually anything that had a little bit of human fluid, such as finger bandages, as hazardous medical waste. In response, the medical waste disposal business skyrocketed.
At professional gatherings that followed the syringe wash-ups of 1988, I met individuals from the US-EPA and NYS-DEC who told me that the only place all this medical waste could be disposed of legally on the East Coast was in a mass burn incinerator in South Carolina. They also told me that the cost of disposal charged by the carting firms was $2,000 per ton. Since the average carting truck carried 20 tons of waste, each truck was grossing $40,000 per trip to South Carolina.
In the search for culprits to the beach wash-ups it was often inferred, such as by TV news crews reporting “what the man in the street is saying,” that the syringes were dumped by unscrupulous carting companies looking to cut corners. One intrepid TV crew even got videos of a carting truck dumping its load from an unused pier near the old Brooklyn Navy Yard into the East River. However, no medical wastes were found—it was all construction rubble, and the guy dumping got arrested. But I didn’t believe that such blatant dumping was what happened to the medical wastes. With the carting firm bosses making piles of money, why would they want to kill the goose that was laying the golden egg?
In the fall of 1988 during a coffee break at a Congressional hearing on the wash-ups, I spoke casually with a field researcher who said she was part of a “syringe-tracking team” from, as I recall, the US-EPA Region II Brooklyn office. However, as I write these words years later, I remember her wearing a Smokey-the-Bear hat, so she might have been with New York City Department of Environmental Protection, (NYC-DEP), or most likely Gateways National Park. The latter makes sense since Gateways has control over the beaches closest to NY harbor, namely Sandy Hook in New Jersey, South and Midland Beaches on Staten Island, and Jacob Riis Park in Brooklyn. She told me her team had walked or kayaked every inch of these beaches looking for syringes.
She stated, as I have previously a few paragraphs above, that the major concentrations were not on Long Island as the media reported, but on the Staten Island-side of the Narrows Inlet, adjacent to the the Verrazanno Bridge that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. This discovery of large concentrations of syringes was never revealed to the public, as far as I know. This individual also told me that the majority of these Staten Island syringes were found at one source, an unused, derelict beach administered by the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation named North Beach, and in fact all these syringes—estimated to be over a 1,000—seemed to have plumed out southward from that point since very few were found north of that beach.
“Do you know what this means?” I asked her incredulously.
“Yes,” she replied. “The syringes were dumped at North Beach.”
“Have you told your bosses?” I continued.
“Yes,” she answered. “I passed on the information weeks ago.”
“Has anyone done anything about it?” I stammered. “I haven’t heard anything like this on the news.”
My confidant only smiled, and shook her head from side-to-side.
“They’re covering it up?” I asked.
She smiled again, and shrugged.
“You’re afraid to talk about this, aren’t you?”
“Why cover this up? Who at EPA could gain from that?”
She shrugged and looked around. She looked scared.
“Thanks, for telling me. This is really big information, I appreciate it.”
She smiled and returned to the hearing.
Based on that information I formed a speculative scenario of how the syringes washed-up: I think the bosses of the carting companies were clean on medical waste, but somebody further down the food chain was not. I think a guy who drove a legitimate medical waste disposal truck to South Carolina every week, who knew the routine and watched his boss pocket thirty-grand per truck, wanted to get a little action for himself.
I believe this individual, or a few, set up their own independent medical waste disposal business. They probably offered great deals to low-income clinics, small veterinarian offices, and dentists—outfits that did not generate large amounts of syringes, and operated on a shoestring budget. Nor did these customers have reason to suspect, nor the means to check if their new disposal company was legit.
These drivers/disposal entrepreneurs probably collected a bag of syringes here and there through the early months of 1988, perhaps even 1987 or earlier. I bet their original idea had been to toss a bag or two into the back of the trucks they were driving to South Carolina. Perhaps it worked for awhile, but in the spring of 1988 they got caught in a squeeze. Scrutiny of hazardous medical waste by JCAHO intensified at that time due to ever-increasing anxiety about AIDS. Careful monitoring of the transfer of medical waste began at every point in the system. Waste transfers at hospital loading docks were carefully weighed, manifests signed, and the load secured with locks. Off-loading in South Carolina was also tightly regulated, so the drivers couldn’t discard their syringes. They were stuck.
I speculate that they stored their waste in a garage or a self-lock storage unit for awhile, but by mid-summer 1988 their problem reached critical mass.
“Why not throw it in the harbor?” one of guys probably said. “The tide will take it out. It’ll sink, and no one will be the wiser. If it floats, no one can trace it to us.”
“Yeah, good idea,” his buddy probably replied. “And I know a great place too, North Beach on Staten Island. We can go there late at night with a fishing pole and a couple six packs of beer, and if anybody asks, we’re just a couple of guys fishin’. But if the coast is clear we can throw a couple of bags into the water. In a couple of nights we’ll be rid of this stuff.”
An estimated 2,000 syringes thus entered the water at North Beach. The 1,000 or so syringes identified by the EPA tracking team stayed close to North Beach. The remaining 800 floated on the wind and tide, and when they hit the beaches of Long Island all hell broke loose.
Millions of New Yorkers go to beaches for very powerful psychological reasons. Besides cooling off and having fun with the kids, it’s a cleansing process of the soul to swim and sun bathe. Simply, beaches are the primary place city people go to get in touch with nature. As a result, the public—and the media—put a lot of heat on the politicians, who in turn put it on the EPA, DEP, and DEC. Everybody, including the media, suspected the carting industry.
With all the eyes of the world upon them, I suspect that the carting dons went to work quickly. They probably suspected that a few bozos in their operations were doing a little side business, and they found those gonzos right away. I would imagine the bosses dealt with them in the traditional manner. I suspect any remaining bags of syringes left in offending garages and storage sheds were quickly emptied onto a legitimate waste truck and hauled to South Carolina. This probably happened around the second or third week of August, 1988. By the end of the third week of August, the syringes stopped coming and I never saw another again—until my current follow-up research revealed otherwise.
Nevertheless, in the run-up to the 1988 Labor Day weekend, there were no syringes reported on any beach for over a week. The business and political sector turned up the heat on the environmental and media collective to get people back to the beach and salvage some of that $7 billion.
During the last week of August, 1988, I attended a giant meeting at Nassau Beach, the County’s huge conference facilities on the shores of Lido Beach, to discuss the syringe crisis. In attendance were nearly one-thousand sewage treatment plant operators, beach managers, and environmental officials.
The head honcho of EPA Region II got the meeting off in light-hearted fashion by saying that he needed help convincing his wife it was safe to take the kids to Long Island’s iconic Jones Beach, and wondered out-loud, “who wore in the pants in my family.” He received vociferous and good-natured applause from the mostly male audience.
He said it was important to get people back to the beach in order to resuscitate the local economy, and presented the current beach problem as wholly one of public relations. He asked the assembled if they would agree to a joint press release stating that the syringes had been effectively dealt with and that the beaches were now safe.
I jumped to my feet and protested rigorously. I said we didn’t know the source of the waste—at the time I didn’t—nor were there any on-going water samplings for pathogens other than bacteria. “We don’t know if there are viruses,” I challenged, “or algae and their toxins, or inorganic hazards such as poisons. There might even be radiation out there. We just don’t know. How can we, in good conscience, tell the public that the beaches are safe?”
The upbeat crowd went silent, and I sat down.
“You got ‘em kid,” the guy next to me said, patting me on the back. “Good job.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Where ya from?”
“I work at a sewage plant in Great Neck (a suburban town on LI near the NYC line). I’m glad you said what ya did. We’ve been seeing stuff float up on our beaches for weeks and we should be closing the beaches, but the bosses don’t want us to. The people on the beach are screaming when they see the stuff wash in… They blame us,” he continued, “but it’s not us. I don’t where the stuff is coming from, but it looks like shit, smells like shit, so I figure it’s gotta be shit. But it’s not from our plant.”
“Maybe. But the funny thing is I really don’t know what it is. Some days it’s really slimy stuff. But, most of the time it’s cake—fluffy, solid stuff that is brown or yellow or black. The scientists tell us it’s dried algae from hypoxia blooms in the Sound, but I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never seen it before, and personally, I doubt that it’s algae. I’ve been in this business long enough to know what algae look like. But what we’re getting this summer isn’t algae, or if it is, it’s a very different algae.”
“Yeah, wow. That’s why I’m glad you said what you said. I don’t think anybody really knows what’s going on.”
For those not savvy about solid-waste disposal, ‘sewage cake’ is the term given to the dried residues of solid-waste treatment. Generally, cake from urban centers is placed on rail cars and shipped to agricultural lands throughout the nation for use as fertilizer. I understand that currently, NYC cake is shipped to eastern Colorado and applied to melon fields. However, in 1988 much of NYC’s cake was loaded onto barges and shipped out into the Atlantic Ocean for dumping.
But following that meeting at Nassau Beach I never saw or heard a press release on behalf of any professional body claiming the waters were safe. Nor did the people return to the beaches of New York that year.
That winter I began speaking publicly at libraries and community centers, sharing what I had heard from the EPA and DEC. I described what I had seen as a beachcleaner, telling my bits and pieces of the wash-up story, tales of environmental degradation, sewage run-offs and unsafe beaches.
One piece of “insider” information that always made people groan was revealing the state’s criteria for safe swimming beaches. I had been told by NYS-DEC officials that the primary criterion for “safe” swimming waters is a fecal bacterial count low enough so that only fifteen people out of one-thousand get sick from sewage contamination. Not “too safe” for those unlucky fifteen, but okay for the other nine-hundred, eighty-five swimmers.
At a NYS-DEC workshop in 1989, I learned that all 123 species of seafood monitored and sold in New York State were contaminated with something, albeit often in minuscule amounts. The last report I saw from the NYS-DEC said that the issue of telling the public the “good news” about seafood in New York is the job of the Department of Public Health, who in turn publicly said it is the province of the NYS-DEC since it is environmental information. This political ping-pong game has been going on for a long time, and I suspect that it continues to this day.
Nevertheless, during the winter and into the following summer of 1989, I wondered about the wash-ups. Why weren’t the North Beach syringes discussed and factored into the clean-up strategies, which focused only upon skimmer boats scooping up floating syringes near CSO points, and the deployment of containment booms at marine transfer points. Why was the EPA guy at the big meeting at Nassau Beach so sure the beaches were safe in August, 1988, even though his wife was just as scared as the rest of us? Did he know something we didn’t and wasn’t telling us?
How come the media didn’t stay on the story, or report to the depth equal to what I knew? The New York Times (NYT) pulled their ace team of Ralph Blumenthal, Philip S. Gutis, and Sam Howe Verhovek after their July 9 – July 25, 1988 postings. In 2005, I talked with Blumenthal at his new assignment as the NY Times’ Houston Bureau Chief to ask why he and his team was pulled off the story, but he said that he had no memory of the entire incident.
Gutis, despite becoming the communications director for the prestigious Natural Resources Defense Council—the premier environmental organization organized by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—never returned any of my phone calls or emails.
As for Sam Howe Verhovek, he moved to a new job at the LA Times and was later reported to be the Tokyo Bureau Chief. He was last rumored to be working in the environmental field in Seattle, but I have never been able to contact him.
The last reports from the NYT team in 1988 indicated that they were findings links between the medical wastes to clinics undergoing Medicaid fraud investigations. Were the syringes intentionally dumped by unscrupulous medical staff pushing back against federal and state indictments? Was dumping a syringe on a hot July 4th beach part of a ploy to gain legal leverage in a corruption scandal?
Or was the first syringe wash-up from a bunch of medical waste truckers on Staten Island, but then other criminal elements saw the potential of polluting beaches with noxious medical wastes as a way to paralyze problematic investigations?
I don’t know. But since reports of syringe wash-ups in the NY area persist to this day, I suspect that criminals continue to taunt investigators with medical waste dumpings if they don’t back-off. Plus, beach officials have now realized that if they don’t publicize the wash-ups, they reduce the power of the criminals. If they can maintain the aura of safe beaches, everyone wins.
In 1988, though, after the NYT’s initial diggings the media’s reports on the syringes became increasingly tepid, and by mid-August they were little more than re-hashings of press releases from the EPA and DEC.
Initially, I think all the major players knew the wash-up problem ended for good by the third week of August 1988, and I think they knew because I think the carting bosses told them. I suspect that the price of getting the whole story was silence. I bet the power brokers at the EPA and the DEC, plus the politicians and the media, agreed to keep quiet. And the silence continues to this day.
Regardless of how it happened in 1988, I heard loud and clear their collective sigh of relief the next season as I sat upon my beachcleaner, the diesel roaring and hydraulics surging, sifting the glorious sands of my beloved New York beaches.