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Fecal Microorganisms Inhabit Sandy Beaches of Florida

A study of Florida beaches has shown that wet sand (in the intertidal zone) and dry sand above the intertidal zone have significantly more fecal bacteria than near-shore seawater. Scientists researched whether indicator bacteria survive longer in sand relative to open water and found that all feces-derived bacteria were capable of enhanced growth and survival in sand, while in seawater the bacterial populations steadily decreased over time.

Traditionally, the cleanliness of a beach is monitored by sampling the bathing water a few meters from shore. But since sand is an effective filter, it follows that fecal bacteria (those from sewage) may be concentrated in the sand as the tide flows and ebbs.

Moreover, trapped bacteria are offered a large surface area for attachment, nourishment from nutrients in sand crevices, and protection from sunlight. These bacteria might be afforded greater survival opportunities and may even be nourished enough to replicate in the beach environment. Dr. Andrew Rogerson, formally of the Oceanographic Center of Nova Southeastern University, Florida, headed an Environmental Protection Agency study to determine the levels of fecal-derived bacteria in Florida beach sand and look for health implications.

Early results showed that wet sand (in the intertidal zone) and dry sand above the intertidal zone had significantly more fecal bacteria than near-shore seawater. This lead to the question– do indicator bacteria survive longer in sand relative to open water? A series of laboratory experiments were conducted to answer this question and the results are presented in the May-June issue of Journal of Environmental Quality.

All the feces-derived bacteria (i.e. traditional indicators of sewage contamination) were capable of enhanced survival in sand and, more importantly, were capable of growth in the sand leading to much higher numbers. Conversely, in seawater the bacteria steadily decreased in number over time. Results also showed a rapid drop off in bacterial numbers in bathing water sampled close to the sand compared with 5, 10 or 20 m from shore. This indicates that the shoreline water is affected by bacterial run-off from the sand.

This has implications for beach managers since the number of bacteria from feces (fecal bacteria) in the water is used to assess the presence of sewages. A high count of these ‘indicator bacteria’ would require the beach to be closed, an action with financial consequences in tourist rich regions such as Florida. Any bacteria washed from the sand complicates the interpretation of counts in the water and could lead to unnecessary beach closures. On the other hand, high numbers of fecal-derived bacteria growing in the sand could constitute an increased health risk.

The authors suggest that water quality managers should consider sampling water further from shore than is routinely practiced (say 10 m from the swash zone) to avoid the complications of bacteria being washed from sand. However, further studies are required to determine whether these higher counts pose a health hazard to bathers. The results of a beach questionnaire designed to look for incidences of illness after beach use were inconclusive.

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at

The Journal of Environmental Quality, is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive, international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, WI, and founded in 1936, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. It provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.

SSSA supports its members by providing quality research-based publications, educational programs, certifications, and science policy initiatives via a Washington, DC, office. For more information, visit

SSSA is the founding sponsor of an approximately 5,000-square foot exhibition, Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, opening July 19, 2008 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Sara Uttech | newswise
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