Lifeguards in Los Angeles say they warned the city of “dangerous and unsafe” water in a local lake and came down with rashes and bacterial infections after they were forced to swim there anyway.
More than 20 lifeguards “were immediately stricken with a nasty case of body rashes and had to seek immediate medical attention” after required water skills testing at Hansen Dam Aquatic Center in late April, according to Jasper Kim, a city lifeguard of 13 years.
“We were simply ignored and told it was ‘safe’ to go in during a mandatory open water skills testing,” Kim said in a statement provided by the lifeguards’ union, SEIU 721.
Lifeguards and the union filed a grievance against the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks on Monday over the conditions at the facility in Lake View Terrace, accusing officials of “turning a blind-eye to lifeguards’ concerns over the water quality.” The union said the city had restricted access to the lake for years, except in cases of emergency, until the training the weekend of April 27.
The lifeguards’ rashes are cases of swimmers’ itch, the union said. Swimmers’ itch is an allergic reaction humans experience after coming into contact with parasites in water that infect birds and mammals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“While the parasite’s preferred host is the specific bird or mammal, if the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin causing an allergic reaction and rash,” the CDC said, adding that swimmers’ itch typically clears up without medical help.
City officials said in a statement that 20 out of 64 lifeguards got medical attention as a result of the swimmer’s itch but cited testing on April 24 that showed the water was “safe for public use,” KABC reports.
In the grievance, Kim wrote that he told his supervisors on April 1 that the water in the lake was “dangerous and unsafe” because it hadn’t been tested for harmful parasites. Kim also said he told his bosses that “based on his years of experience and because the presence of these brain eating parasites that people should stay out of the water until immediate testing could be completed.”
Kim said in the grievance that management went ahead with the mandatory swim tests despite his warnings, writing that afterward about 22 employees “ immediately suffered respiratory problems and their bodies were covered in rash and body irritants.”
That included Kim himself.
“My body welted up with red bumps and blisters, which I still have not recovered from and I am currently taking medication for,” Kim said in a statement. “Despite this troubling medical condition, I was told I could not use my sick days, and simply had to work in another part of the City as I recovered from the infection, or simply take a vacation.”
The union is demanding immediate water quality testing at the facility — and that the city close access to the lake until it’s proven safe. The group held a press conference at the facility on Tuesday morning.
The union said the city moved its water skills training to the lake because of the closure of Cabrillo Beach.
“The Hansen Dam Recreation Lake, where the lifeguards were infected, is filled with circulated tap water and it offers fishing and boating to the public,” the union said in the news release. “While swimming is prohibited to the public, the lake is open year-round and hosts activities throughout the year.”