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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | July 2005 

Sandstorm Over Health
email this pageprint this pageemail usJamie Talan - Newsday

At the beach, it’s the water that often gets tested for bacteria, but studies say E. coli is among risks in sand.
A series of recent studies suggest that the nation's beaches are filled with E.coli and other organisms that may threaten human health. Scientists conducting the studies say E.coli may not be the only infectious worry. If this common organism found in fecal matter of all species is accumulating in sand, says Richard Whitman, chief of the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station, it indicates "there are other pathogens."

Whitman, who researches beach closures for the U.S. Geological Survey, took 2,000 sand samples and an equal number of fresh and marine water samples from the Great Lakes outside of Chicago and found E.coli levels were 10 times higher in sand than in the water. Federal public health laws only mandate the testing of water.

Based in part on Whitman's findings, the nonprofit Clean Beaches Council issued a report calling for scientific studies to see whether the high E.coli levels pose a danger to beachgoers, especially small children who play in sand. The organisms can gain entry into the body through any opening, especially the eyes, ears and mouth. The council also wants public health laws to include the testing of sand.

Whitman said the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also expressed interest in testing sand.

In public health, it's all a matter of numbers. According to Whitman, "E.coli is everywhere, and we track it year-round. What's missing is a good understanding of the organism's behavior in the ecosystem, including sand."

In Suffolk County, Dr. David Graham, chief deputy health commissioner, said sand is routinely tested. He explained that fecal matter from birds and geese contaminates the sand, and then infects the water. The tests confirm the presence of E. coli, which indicates the presence of other potentially infectious organisms. If levels are high enough, beaches are routinely closed.

Nassau and New York City officials say they test only water. The state does not mandate that sand be tested.

Certain areas are more at risk of contamination than others because of the topography. "Birds use some places as a natural preserve," Graham said. Beaches populated by humans are less likely to be home to large numbers of seagulls and geese, he said. Examples of frequently closed beaches due to contamination are Lake Ronkonkoma, Ocean Beach bay beach on Fire Island and Camp Baiting Hollow.

Also, ocean waves are more likely to carry bacteria away from the shore. In lakes, the water is more stagnant and the risk of bacterial growth is higher, Whitman said.

Traditionally, Graham said, public health officials have been more concerned with the bacterial levels in the water. If contaminated water gets into a swimmer's eyes, it can cause infection. Also, swallowed water contaminated with high levels of certain organisms can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms.

Public health officials nationwide monitor E.coli in fresh-water lakes and ponds, and enterococci in marine waters. Both are barometers for more serious microbes, including viruses and parasites. While both can cause illness themselves, they are also predictive of other disease-causing organisms.

So what's a beachcomber to do? Walter McLeod, president of the Clean Beaches Council, advises parents to make sure their children are washed down when leaving the beach, and make sure they keep their hands out of their mouths, ears and eyes. "It's much better to err on the side of safety until we know more," McLeod said. "We know the organisms are there. Now, we need the epidemiologic data to link the organisms to human health problems."

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