The WHO guidelines for safe recreational water environments provide a thorough review of the microbial aspects of beach sand quality and beach sand contamination. According to the guidelines, microorganisms are a significant component of beach sand. Additionally, a number of genera and species that may be found through contact with sand are potential pathogens.

This makes beach sand a likely source of infection. Different types of microorganisms are present in beach sand, including faecal index microorganisms, staphylococcus, bacteria and fungi.

Contamination in sand even higher than in water

In a research study published in 2015, Qian Zhang, Xia He, and Tao Yan from the University of Hawaii at Manoa observed that microbial communities in fact tended to decay much slower in the beach sand environment than in the water.

In the study, the researchers created microcosms of beach sand and seawater contaminated with sewage. The purpose was to observe the change in the overall bacterial population over time, including those responsible for causing illness.

It was discovered that microbial communities tended to decay much slower in the simulated beach sand environment than in the water. This finding could explain why more faecal bacteria are found on sandy beaches affected by wastewater pollution than in the waves.

Beach sand contributes to gastrointestinal problems

Beach sand may also provide a more significant risk of gastrointestinal disease than the water. In a 2008 study, Richard L. Whitman and colleagues collected sand samples from a few locations on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois for the analysis of E. coli and MS2 – two human pathogen surrogates.

Results of their analysis showed that 11 out of 1,000 individuals would develop gastrointestinal symptoms if all E.coli on the fingertip were ingested, whereas ingesting all of E. coli from the hand would result in 33 out of 1,000 individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms.

The amount of these pathogens that were transferred to the human skin was strongly associated with initial concentration in the sand. However, the researchers also concluded that both E. coli and MS2 coliphage could be rinsed from the hand following exposure to beach sand. As children are likely to have recurrent exposure and thus more vulnerable to sand-borne pathogens, it may be important to advise them to rinse repeatedly.

Determining when beach sand is unsafe for digging and contact

The fact that microbes concentrate in higher levels in beach sand calls for a measure to determine when contact with beach sand is considered unsafe for contact and other activities such as digging. In 2012, a team of scientists utilised computer simulations and measurements of microbes that cause diseases found at beaches in California and Florida.

The ultimate goal was to determine the amount of bacteria that would have to be present in beach sand to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guideline for water. This particular study is very significant in addressing the problem of children being exposed to beach sand contamination due to their typical activities at the beach.

The above findings clearly illustrate the fact that beach sand contamination can be a major public health concern. Therefore, besides the focus given on water contamination as a cause of many diseases, sand contamination is also a concern that should be highlighted to the public.

Healthcare professionals can surely help to enlighten and develop awareness to patients and the general public by promoting appropriate health measures, especially frequent beachgoers. MIMS

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