Study Finds More Bacteria in Beach Sand Than Water

By Brenda Flanagan

Even along the sparkling Jersey shoreline known for its clean beaches, it happens.

That’s why health officials routinely test ocean water quality. But a recent study suggests fecal coliform bacteria lurk in the sand, too. That doesn’t surprise most beach regulars.

“You have all these birds and they all defecate and you don’t know what’s in the sand, the same way you don’t know what’s in the water,” said Anne Oliva.

“Some of the fecal bacteria could live longer in beach sand than in sea water,” said Professor Tao Yan.

Yan and a team of engineers at the University of Hawaii surveyed several beaches and found more E. coli bacteria in the sand than in the water. Their report says bacteria will disperse more readily in ocean waves, but it lingers longer at the beach where it takes more time to decompose.

“If you go to a beach, if you see the beach is closed for fecal contamination, probably you should restrain from playing in the sand, which I often see people doing that,” Yan said.

In a statement, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection said, “We’re reviewing the study, but it’s important to note that New Jersey ocean beaches are open 99.9 percent of the time because they meet the state Sanitary Code standards for bacteria,” and noted there’s no evidence of illness from bacteria in sand. But environmental advocates say they’ve known about beach sand contamination for about a decade — and it’s time the state started testing for it.

“It’s great that New Jersey does have a water quality testing program and it can always be improved — including for sand and areas of concern and also in particular after rainstorms when we have huge amounts of polluted runoff entering into the water bodies,” said Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action.

People do play in the sand — burying toes and constructing castles. Does testing it matter?

“Not really. It won’t change what we do. So I suppose if they tested and found there was all kinds of problems we might make a different choice, but otherwise, no,” said Ken Sypal.

“I think that bacterial tests on beaches would only improve the quality and help people be more healthy at the beach,” said Alex Welsh.

A close encounter with E. coli can make you very ill so doctors advise beachgoers to pack their bag properly.

“The important thing to bring are maybe some wipes, hand sanitizers. We use hand sanitizers in the hospital and they are very effective,” said Dr. Shelley-Ann Pennycooke.

Local health officials follow state protocols when they test ocean water. That happens every Monday. And for now, testing will not include beach sand.