Microscopic menaces: What to know before you hit the beach


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Towel? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Finding the microbe levels at your local beach? Maybe not. Water safety might be the last thing on your mind when you’re packing up for a trip to the beach, but high levels of bacteria can mean a bad stomach ache that can ruin your day even more than a sunburn. And beach goers who stay shore-side aren’t totally safe either. A new study investigated microbe levels in sand and found that they can be just as high as those in the water.

Microorganisms in ocean water can cause diarrhea and abdominal pain, and generally come from polluted storm-water runoff, sewage treatment malfunctions and boating waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Gross, we know, but don’t worry — water is usually safe for swimming. Most beaches test their water and post the information online, letting visitors know when bacteria levels are too high. You can find that info on the EPA’s website by searching for your state and beach. You can even sign up for email updates that let you know when there’s a risk for contaminated water.

As for safety on the shore, a new study investigated levels of microorganisms in beach sand with little kids building sandcastles and dogs digging around in mind. Some microbes can survive longer in sand than in water, so levels can be higher and more concentrated than in the water. One study even found that there are sometimes enough microbes on one fingertip of sand to cause gastrointestinal troubles. So scientists from the American Chemical Society set out to determine how much bacteria would need to be in sand to meet the EPA’s guidelines for water safety; those guidelines should be available online soon.

But don’t let a fear of a microscopic menace keep you from hitting the beach. If your favorite beach doesn’t test the water, try to stay away after heavy rain and avoid areas near drainage pipes, the EPA advises. And make sure to wash off your hands after swimming or touching sand before you dig into that beach picnic.