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Germs Hold Court in Sand Castles

It's safer to keep beach underfoot than to dig in it, survey finds

TUESDAY, July 14 (HealthDay News) -- Beware of the dangers that lurk in sand castles, researchers warn.

Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that beachgoers who build sand castles and play in the sand are at higher risk of developing diarrhea and gastrointestinal diseases than folks who avoid digging in the sand.

And if you bury yourself in sand, you're at even higher risk, according to the study, which was recently published online in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"Beach sand can contain indicators of fecal contamination," said Chris Heaney, lead study author and a postdoctoral student of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina. "This is one of the first studies to show an association between specific sand contact activities and illnesses," he explained in a news release from the university.

Heaney and the other researchers used data from more than 27,000 people who participated in the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water Study. The beachgoers were interviewed at seven marine and freshwater sites, all of them within a few miles of sewage plant discharges. The actual source of the infectious sand, however, was not known and may have included local runoff and animal contamination.

The survey asked people how much and what kind of contact they had with sand during a recent beach visit. Two weeks later, the researchers interviewed them again to see if they experienced any disease symptoms.

About 13 percent of the respondents who dug in the sand, built sand castles and the like reported gastrointestinal troubles. But the number rose to 23 percent for people who reported covering themselves in sand. The researchers also found evidence of rashes, earaches, infected cuts, eye ailments and upper respiratory illnesses.

The study authors cautioned the public not to be too concerned about the study findings; after all, millions of Americans visit beaches every summer, and the amount of actual infection was less than 10 percent in any age group, said Heaney.

Still, beachgoers can take some precautions after playing in the sand. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, said Tim Wade, an EPA epidemiologist and the study's senior author.

Wade added: "People should not be discouraged from enjoying sand at the beach."

More information

Read more about some of the types of bacteria found in beach sand at the Surfrider Foundation.

-- Peter West

SOURCE: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, news release, July 9, 2009

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