Some people go to the beach but eschew going into the water because it's "gross". If that's you, then you are a sucker. According to a new EPA study, playing in the sand more than doubles your chances of getting sick.
The study, which was a collaboration between the EPA, UNC Chapel Hill, and Johns Hopkins, found a relationship between sand exposure and gastrointestinal illnesses due to fecal microbial pollution in beach sand. Yeah, sandpoop. It was even worse than exposure to the ocean water. The researchers tested 144 wet-sand samples from beaches within two miles of a waste treatment-works outfall (testing for Enterococcus, Bacteroidales, fecal Bacteroides, and Clostridium, and others) and conducted nearly 5,000 interviews at the beaches with followup interviews two weeks later.
They found that, compared with beachgoers who did not dig in the sand, the adjusted odds ratio (OR) of illness among those who dug in the sand with the highest Enterococcus levels was 2.0 for GI illnesses and 2.4 for diarrhea (considered as a separate outcome).
In other words, they were between two and two and-a-half times as likely to get sick. And it was even worse for people who were buried in the sand. The EPA doesn't advocate avoiding the beach all together, but says people "should consider washing their hands or using a hand sanitizer after playing in the sand or water." Yeah, or maybe a Silkwood shower would do the trick.
Obviously, examining beaches that are near waste-treatment plants are liable to be nastier, but the EPA thinks wider conclusions can be drawn. Beaches with less nasty water are likely to have less nasty sand, but the sand is still likely to be nastier than the water. Way too much nastiness for my liking.
I'd never really considered this, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Sand is often used for filtration systems (y'know, they're called "sand filters"), because it's good at pulling contaminants out of water. Those contaminants don't just disappear. So basically, the beach is one big filter for the nastiness in the ocean. Which is, y'know, gross, but if you think that's going to keep me off the beach you've got another thing coming. If you need me, I'll be surfing in an biohazard suit. [EPA via TreeHugger]