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.

Angela February 21, 2012 at 9:47 am

Thanks for the post! Can’t wait for comments to appear which go ‘eeeeek!’. Personally, wouldn’t put me off touching sand, but would probably make me watch out for friends’ kids health in terms of hand-washing.

Colleen Davis February 21, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Yes, I was thinking the same thing about watching out for kids!

Andrew Maynard February 21, 2012 at 5:46 pm

We are all waiting for the photos of you, a beach, a pile of mags, and a handy bottle of Purell!

Colleen Davis February 21, 2012 at 9:50 pm

haha :) I have the purell ready!

Ashley Alexander February 23, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Very well-written post! You’re totally right that water quality gets a lot of attention–I’ve never considered what might be lurking in sand. Guess maybe I shouldn’t be too sad that I won’t be on a beach over spring break!

Paige Kyle February 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Great posts–I have enjoyed reading along! I’m actually a perspective student for Fall 2012–EHS Human Nutrition-Dietetics. I’d love to hear from a current student’s perspective–not that I don’t enjoy perusing through the occasional student blogs online :), but I’d really appreciate asking a few questions if you have the time.

Thanks Colleen!

Kristy E. February 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I can honestly say I’ve never considered the potential hazards of beach sand. I’ve definitely thought about it when it comes to beach water and am not quite sure why my thoughts stopped there. I’ll actually be in Florida in a few weeks for a small vacation, and I’m sure your post will stick with me. It’s nice to know that there are prevention methods, though. I think I’ll go along with you on the whole hand sanitizer and/or soap in the beach bag idea! Thanks for sharing!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: