Beach Bums! Gastrointestinal Distress from Sand?

by Colleen Davis on February 21, 2012

Winter break officially starts next week, but my mind is already at the beach.  I’m ready to relax by the water and trade in my textbooks for a stack of magazines.  After reading this study, however, I’m inclined to keep my hands out of the sand.

A research study published in Epidemiology last month investigated the relationship between sand-contact activities and enteric illness.  Enteric illness refers to intestinal infections acquired by contact with bacteria-contaminated sources such as food, or by contact with contaminated feces or vomit.  The effects of enteric illness run on a continuum from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to severe GI complications and diarrheal disease that can cause death.   The study in Epidemiology found a positive relationship between engaging in sand-contact activities and the development of enteric illness from pathogens associated with fecal contamination.

The impetus to conduct this research resulted from previous studies that confirmed the presence fecal matter and the associated enteric pathogens such as E. coli in beach sand.  Water quality of beaches is a hot topic in research, but sand quality doesn’t receive as much attention.  Since beach-goers are likely to spend time on, well, the beach, further research in this area was certainly justified.

The researchers analyzed data from the 2007 trials of the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water Study, which took place at 2 recreational beach sites, one at Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama and the other at Greenwich Bay in Warwick, Rhode Island.  Beachgoers were questioned at each site as they left the waterfront about their sand-contact activities.  They were asked to report all varieties of contact with sand, including digging and playing in the sand, swimming, building sandcastles, and being buried in the sand.  Participants were also asked if they washed their hands before eating or drinking on the beach, and researchers inquired if beachgoers had consumed raw or undercooked food in the past three days.  On the same day, researchers collected sand samples from each beach site (144 samples total) and tested for the presence of enteric pathogens known to cause gastrointestinal stress.

Ten to twelve days later, a member of each beach-going group was interviewed regarding his or her group’s gastrointestinal health after visiting the beach.  Specifically, researchers asked the group representative if he or she or any of the members of the group experienced vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, or general gastrointestinal distress in the time following the beach outing.  Participants were again asked about their consumption of raw or undercooked foods in the time since visiting the beach.  A total of 4948 beachgoers fully participated in the research study.

The results?  Playing in the sand could be hazardous to your health.  A positive association was found between digging and being buried in the sand and enteric illness at both beach sites.  Specifically, enteric-illness causing pathogens Enterococcus and Bacteroidales were found in the sand samples.

The results cast a small cloud over my upcoming beach getaway, but knowledge is power.  The spread of enteric illness can be prevented by thorough hand-washing and sanitation practices that can easily be applied at the beach.  I’ll toss a bar of soap into my beach bag and pass on the full-body sand application.