Just when you thought it was safe to get out of the water, it turns out that land onshore might be more likely to make you sick. According to a new report from the EPA, beach sand may be home to more dangerous levels of illness-inducing bacteria than the often suspiciously warm, wader-packed ocean itself. Indeed, researchers warn that even folks too cautious to dip a single toe into the sea are often being exposed to dangerous levels of fecal microbial pollution. Yuck!
Not to sound too alarmist here, but those sand-castles you've been building recently might more appropriately be dubbed 'unsanditary-castles', particularly if you live nearby a waste treatment plant -- so says the EPA:
In one of the first studies to show this association, the researchers analyzed 144 wet sand samples collected from Fairhope Municipal Park Beach in Fairhope, AL, and Goddard Memorial State Park Beach in Warwick, RI. Both beaches are located less than 2 miles from a publicly owned waste treatment-works outfall. The researchers then tested the samples for bacterial indicators of fecal contamination, namely, Enterococcus, Bacteroidales, fecal Bacteroides, and Clostridium, as well as a viral indicator called F+ coliphage.
Researchers from the EPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Johns Hopkins University questioned beachgoers and discovered that those who dug or were buried in the sand showed more symptoms of gastrointestinal illness than those who did not. Such symptoms include "diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and/or stomach ache" -- and they're all associated with exposure to fecal bacteria.
"We have known for some time that swimming in fecally contaminated water is a risk factor for gastrointestinal symptoms, but this is the first analysis to link these symptoms to measures of fecal contamination in sand," says Timothy Wade Ph.D., of the EPA and senior author of the study. "The symptoms we observed are usually mild and should not deter people from enjoying the beach, but they should consider washing their hands or using a hand sanitizer after playing in the sand or water."