From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published July 29, 2010 10:23 AM

Health Risks at the Beach

Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water... Sharks can be scary to encounter when swimming in the ocean. But they are not the most dangerous threat one can face at the beach. A new study from the University of Miami suggests that microbes in the water should be of much greater concern, especially in warmer waters. The team found that swimmers at sub-tropical beaches face an increased risk of illness.


The research program is called B.E.A.C.H.E.S., which stands for Beach Environmental Assessment and Characterization Human Exposure Study. BEACHES enlisted 1,300 South Florida beach-goers to participate in the study. The group was split between those that go in the water and those who do not. Several days after the experiment, the researchers followed up on both the wet and dry group to see about their health status.

"We found that when swimming in sub-tropical beach areas with no known pollution or contamination from sewage or runoff, you still have a chance of being exposed to the kind of microbes that can make you sick," said Dr. Lora Fleming, co-director of the Center for Oceans and Human Health (OHH) and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Miami. "This information is especially important to take into account for children and the elderly, or if you have a compromised immune system and are planning a beach outing."

Ocean swimmers are typically more concerned with getting stung by a jellyfish, stepping on something sharp, or the occasional tar ball. Having to be concerned with microbes may seem like too much. However, the numbers from the study do not lie.

The wet group was 1.76 times more likely to have some kind of gastrointestinal sickness. They were also 4.46 times more likely to report having a fever or respiratory illness. Plus the wet group was six times more likely to report a skin illness.

The microbes which caused these disorders were not linked to human-based sewage or runoff, but rather from natural environmental factors. Their prevalence can be linked to sunlight, rainfall, wave and current conditions, and above all, water temperature.

The researchers have made the following recommendations for beach-goers:
- Avoid getting sea water in your mouth
- Avoid swimming when sick or with open wounds
- Shower before and after swimming in the water
- Wash hands thoroughly before eating
- Bring kids to the restroom frequently while at the beach

This article is not meant to discourage anybody from swimming in the ocean and having a good time. Most beach-goers do not report any sickness at all from their swimming activities. However, it is important to remember that illness-causing microbes can exist in the salt waters of the ocean, and humans can be susceptible to them. Taking these minimum precautions will help ensure a more enjoyable experience at the beach.

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