Insights from the Editor

Sand Trap: Germs at the Beach

posted by Robert Davis, Ph.D. on August 20, 2009 4:29 PM

As summer draws to a close, many of us will be hitting the beach for one last hurrah. If, like some members of my family, you prefer building sandcastles over swimming because the ocean seems dirty and disgusting, I have some unsettling news: The sand is even worse.

Scientists have found that levels of E. coli bacteria in sand tend to be higher than those in the water. The result, according to a recently-published study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, is that people who dig in the sand are more likely to get sick than those who take a dip in the ocean or walk on the beach.

The scientists interviewed more than 27,000 visitors at seven U.S. beaches and asked about the beachgoers' activities. Ten to 12 days later, participants were contacted by phone and asked about any illnesses they had experienced since their trip to the beach.

Those who had dug in the sand were slightly more likely to develop stomach illnesses and diarrhea than those who had not dug in the sand. The risk was further increased among people who had been buried in the sand. As you might expect, kids were especially vulnerable.

Fortunately, you don't need to forfeit that sandcastle-building contest to stay well. According to another new study, this one in the Journal of Water and Health, there's a simple solution: Wash your hands. The researchers found that subjects with sand-covered hands who rinsed in clean water removed 92% of E. coli that might otherwise have ended up in their mouths and led to illness. Rinsing four times removed virtually 100%.

Of course, it's best to use soap or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. If you don't have access to either, though, rinsing your hands with clean water several times before you dig into your picnic basket or leave the beach can do the trick.

It's a reminder that even on vacation, Mom's advice to wash your hands still applies. To find out other surprising places where potentially harmful germs lurk and how to protect yourself, watch this video.

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About the Author

Robert Davis, Ph.D.

Robert J. Davis, PhD is President and Editor-in-Chief of Everwell.

An award-winning health journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, PBS, WebMD and in The Wall Street Journal, he is the author of The Healthy Skeptic: Cutting Through the Hype About Your Health and Coffee Is Good for You. He also teaches at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health.
Davis holds a PhD in health policy from Brandeis University, where he was a Pew Fellow, a master's degree in public health from Emory, and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University.