Make sure you wash, after digging in the sand

Summer is made for days at the beach, and beaches are made for sand castles. But the castles you build just might make you sick later.

Summer is made for days at the beach, and beaches are made for sand castles.

But the castles you build just might make you sick later.

If you’re digging in sand at the beach, a researcher who studied illnesses among beachgoers suggests you have everyone wash their hands before pulling out the picnic basket.

Christopher Heaney of the department of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina analyzed the data after more than 27,000 visitors to seven U.S. beaches were asked about their contact with the sand, then telephoned 10 to 12 days later.

He says there was a 13 per cent increased risk of gastrointestinal illness among those digging in the sand compared to those not digging in the sand, and a 20 per cent increased risk of diarrhea.

And among those who were actually buried in the sand, there was a 23 per cent increased risk of gastrointestinal illness.

The beaches studied were all within 11.2 km of sewage plant discharges, but it’s not known whether this had any effect on fecal content of the sand.

Heaney says people shouldn’t be fearful of going to the beach, but he says the study highlights the importance of washing up before eating at the beach, and perhaps taking along some hand sanitizer.

“There are steps that you can take,” Heaney said from Chapel Hill, N.C.

“You can understand that the beach environment is not sterile — particularly the sand environment is not sterile.

“If you’re at the beach all day and you’ve played in the sand, that you could wash your hands after you’ve played in the sand if you’re going to have something to eat or . . . have a snack or have a drink.”

The source of contamination in the sand is an “unresolved” issue, he said, but fecal matter could come from urban run-off after a heavy rain, wild and domestic animals, as well as humans if there’s high swimmer density.

The study was published earlier this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Heaney noted that further studies are being conducted on two beaches this summer — one impacted by sewage nearby, and one not.

The same questions will be asked of beachgoers, but in addition, sand will be collected and analyzed to check the densities of microbial indicators of fecal pollution.

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