Health Risks Hiding In That Sand Castle

Although some beaches can be contaminated due to red tide and being exposed to pollutants like mercury, another health risk may be lurking underneath your feet.

A new report by the Clean Beaches Council (free text link below) found beach sand may be just as risky because it contains more bacteria that can survive much longer there than in water. Although many experts emphasize water testing, beach sand contains five to 10 times the bacteria found in water, according to the council.

Why? E.coli bacteria, for example, found in bird droppings and human waste left on beaches becomes attached to sand and even grows there for weeks or months.

The report was based on studies done on beach sand in Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and St. Clair County, Mich., that tracked indicator bacteria like E. coli and enterococcus, bacteria that may not necessarily be harmful to humans but at high levels can indicate that a pathogen such as salmonella is present.

In the Chicago study conducted in 2003, bacteria levels in sand at a freshwater beach were up to 10 times that of the swimming water. Even worse, just two weeks after the city replaced the contaminated sand, the bacteria level was back to where it was before the sand was removed. Moreover, the level of bacteria remained high, regardless of water quality, scientists say.

Some common sense advice for protecting your health and that of your family at the beach:

  • When you leave the beach, take away any food and water you bring. Birds leave more droppings on beaches if they are regularly swooping in for the tidbits of food you leave behind.
  • Warn your children to keep their hands out of their mouths while digging in the sand.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after a day at the beach.

Clean Beaches Council Free Full Text Report

USA Today August 1, 2005

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