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A recent study shows that beach sand contains pathogens (bacteria) that pose a risk to adults and children and can cause illness and disease, such as skin infections and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.
The U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has formulated guidelines that determine when the pathogen levels are high enough to be dangerous for swimmers in both fresh water and sea water, but has not done so for recreational beaches. Researchers at the University of Miami and Northern Illinois University are beginning to rectify this by producing their own guidelines.
As the EPA monitored water containing fecal indicator fecal bacteria (FIB), so did the researchers because it poses as a large threat to humans (diseases such as E. coli are caused by feces-contaminated water). FIB comes from direct sewage spills and from dog and bird feces and would indicate the presence of pathogens of multiple virus strains.
“Infectious risks vary in different microorganism,” Tomoyuki Shibata tells the University of Miami. Shibata is the assistant professor in the Public Health Program and Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, & Energy at Northern Illinois University.
The researchers focused on studying sand from recreational beaches (mostly in Florida and California) because it would pose the most amount of threat to people.
In four steps, using reference pathogen guidelines from the EPA, the researchers essentially produced mathematical models, and computer simulations and measurements – per each gram of sand – of the disease-inducing pathogens to determine if the level of pathogens in the beach sand would go over the EPA’s guidelines. It turned out that it did. One fingertip dipped in the sand and inserted in the mouth contains enough FIB to cause GI. According to the researchers’ report, 19 out of 1000 beachgoers would be infected with GI.
Children would especially be susceptible to the pathogens and to becoming ill because they expose themselves to the sand more than adults.
“Parents of young children don’t need to overreact to our findings,” Shibata asserts. “They can reduce their child’s infectious risk by basic hygiene practices such as hand washing before eating or drinking and taking a shower.”
The report has been published in the American Chemical Society’s journal “Environmental Science and Technology,” and was written by Shibata and by Helena M. Solo-Gabriele, who is and the principal investigator of the study and a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the UM College of Engineering.