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The surf breaks from Imperial Beach Pier down to the Tijuana Slough are some of Southern California’s best. In that area, surfers can find good waves and light crowds. The water quality, however, is bad.

In summer months, according to a report released by the nonprofit environmental group Wildcoast, surfers and frequent ocean users have reported smelling a “sweet, chemical” odor near the shore.

In the wet weather months, when the Tijuana River flows into the ocean and millions of gallons of untreated sewage water drifts north off of Imperial Beach, the shoreline becomes what many regard as the most polluted stretch of beach in the country.

Each year, contamination found off Imperial Beach results in approximately 200 beach closures, which, according to the Department of Environmental Health, make up 80 to 95 percent of San Diego County’s total beach closures every year.

For many beachgoers, exposure to the sewage-contaminated water can lead to ear and eye infections, skin irritations, diarrhea, and possibly hepatitis A.

After a substantial rain in 2007, researchers from San Diego State University found hepatitis A in 80 percent of the samples they collected near the Imperial Beach Pier.

“No extensive epidemiological study has ever been completed of Imperial Beach ocean users,” says Ben McCue, coastal conservation program manager for Wildcoast. “But we’ve done surveys and two-thirds of the regular ocean users who enter the water at least once a week, year-round, reported getting sick from water contact.”

To draw awareness and prevent surfers from contracting hepatitis A, on Saturday, March 14, at the end of Imperial Beach’s Seacoast Drive, in front of the signs indicating heavily contaminated water, Wildcoast (in conjunction with Imperial Beach Health Center and San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health) will pass out informational health packets and offer 1200 free hepatitis A vaccinations to surfers and any other frequent ocean-user.

For more on Wildcoast, visit their website at Wildcoast.net.

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