Lt. Tony Rossano, one of 13 city sanitation cops, sifts through syringes, blood vials and other disgusting debris, hunting for the culprit who's dumping the infectious medical waste tainting beaches in five states.

"It's like the detective work on a murder case," Rossano said. "We're doing interviews, surveillance, followup, just good old-fashioned police work. We trace every marked item we can."These gumshoes of garbage look for names, dates and places so they can zero in on the offending source. But most of the seaborne slop, carried by the whims of tides, currents and winds, either has no markings or waterlogged labels are unreadable.

More than 1,000 items of medical waste, most of it syringes used to inject insulin or illegal drugs, have been bagged in an evidence trailer. Under particular scrutiny are people who were caught dumping before.

"There's reason to believe we can identify the bad actors who are illegally dumping," said Brendan Sexton, health commissioner and head of the city's sanitation department.

Sexton said Sunday on WABC-TV's "Eyewitness News Conference" program that violators should face long jail sentences for illegally dumping wastes in the city's waters.

But Sexton said officials in the meantime were looking into the possibility of charging violators who illegally dump blood, vials and syringes in the water with reckless endangerment.

"We have some public health statutes we know are violated, but they weren't meant to get someone a 15-year sentence," Sexton said.

"What is the right penalty for someone who puts a vial of AIDS-contaminated blood or hepatitis-contaminated blood on a beach where children play? I don't know if a public health violation is all you want to charge them with," the commissioner said.

Sexton announced charges Saturday against Muhammad Wasim Pasha, 36, of Queens, manager of the Mideast Medical Center in Harlem. He was accused of illegally disposing of potentially infectious waste in improper containers.

Some of the waste may have gotten into the water, and some of it was found not too far from the Harlem site, he said.

Pasha was charged with two counts of willful violation of city health laws, which are misdemeanors carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $200 fine on each count.

Meanwhile, an investigation of several other unnamed firms suspected of the illegal dumping was continuing and more charges were expected, Sexton said.

"They have quite clearly and consciously . . . been disposing of the stuff in a way where they didn't know where it ended up," Sexton said of the other offenders.

In addition, the commissioner said it was "possible" that much of the surfside problem was caused by drug abusers. Environmental advocates have decried that explanation as a governmental attempt to shrug off responsibility for the current beach and water crisis.

"We found a lot of syringes on the beach above the highwater mark," he said. "Now, the highest tide couldn't get them there."

New York generates 1.8 million pounds of red bag waste each week, 45 percent of which comes from New York City. Most of it is incinerated on the spot or taken out of state for disposal.

Several city, Suffolk County and Westchester County beaches remained closed due to more medical debris washing up on the shoreline, including plastic bags, syringes, blood vials, tampons and other medical waste.