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EPA: Playing in beach sand bigger health risk than ocean itself

February 3, 2012 |  4:59 pm

Beach sand linked to illness
Take warning, beachgoers: That carefully built sand castle could turn out to be a real pain in the gut.

Digging and playing in beach sand puts people at higher risk of getting sick than swimming or sunbathing, according to a new study led by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers surveyed some 5,000 beach visitors and found that those who dug in the most contaminated sand were twice as likely to fall ill with diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach aches. Those who had been buried in the sand showed an even greater tendency to get sick.

That's because polluted beach sand can harbor even more pathogens than the surf, according to researchers with the EPA, the University of North Carolina and Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists made the sand-sickness correlation by taking 144 samples of wet sand from beaches in Fairhope, Ala., and Warwick, R.I., that are near waste-water outfalls, testing them for bacteria that indicate the presence of harmful viruses and pathogens. Researchers also asked beach visitors if they dug in the sand and swam in the water. Two weeks later, they called participants to see if they had gotten sick and what their symptoms were.

Experts have known for years that swimming in sewage-fouled water puts swimmers at risk for gastrointestinal illness, but EPA researchers said their study was one of the first to link those ailments to contamination in beach sand.

"The symptoms we observed are usually mild and should not deter people from enjoying the beach," said Timothy Wade, chief of the EPA's Environmental Public Health Division Epidemiology Branch and senior author of the study, in a news release. "But they should consider washing their hands or using a hand sanitizer after playing in the sand or water."

-- Tony Barboza

Photo: Mary Rodriguez builds a sand castle last summer at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. Arkasha Stevenson/Los Angeles Times