THE BLOG

The Beach Is Great for Sun, Surf and...Germs

03/10/2014 01:10 EDT | Updated 05/09/2014 05:59 EDT

At this time of year, almost everyone is awaiting the inevitable end to winter and the beginning of the warmer weather of spring. But many of us cannot wait for Mother Nature and instead journey to one of a plethora of pleasant places famous for their warmth, both climactic and interpersonal. Amongst the most popular destinations, including Florida, California and the Caribbean, exist some of the most desirable beaches where millions congregate to take in the joys of sun, sea, sand, and unfortunately germs.

The small strip of soil between the water and the mainland has continually been a focus of public health as the risk to humans from the environment doubles. The threats not only come from the water, which is associated with gastrointestinal and skin diseases, but they also can come from the land itself from disease-carrying insects such as sand flies and fleas.

For over 80 years, the focus on beach health and safety has been investigated in order to determine how best to measure the risks. Researchers knew even then that the abundance of beaches worldwide would make testing each and every one for them impossible. They had to find ways to monitor beaches in a cost-effective manner to make what would be best called a 'guesstimate'. At least then, a simple, cost-effective test could be used globally to warn visitors of the potential for infection.

Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. It wasn't until 1976 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released their first understanding of the relationship between infections and beach conditions. The study had been conducted in 1974 using a fairly simplistic model. The team ventured out to the various beaches of New York City and counted the number of bacteria in the water and on the beaches. Then, they approached swimmers and followed up with them for 10 days to determine if they had acquired any infections.

Ethically, this may seem odd today but back then, the information was invaluable. The team learned that a certain concentration of bacteria known as fecal coliforms -yes, that means poop -- led to a higher incidence of infection. This led the EPA to develop guidelines for swimmers that are now in use worldwide. Whenever you hear of a beach being closed because of too much bacteria, it's due to this study.

While the worry of water was sorted, there was still the risk posed from staying out of the water and on the beach. Even back in 1976, researchers knew that people still became ill without once ever touching the water. Although standard reasons such as heat exposure, sunburn and other physiological problems could explain many of the complaints, there was still no answer as to whether the sand itself was a problem.

In 2012, the answer was found by an American team of researchers. They performed a similar study as that in 1974 except instead of testing the water, they tested the sand. Not only did they find a link between sand exposure and infection, but they also identified a large number of bacterial pathogens even if the water itself was considered to be safe.

In essence, not only was the water a problem, but also the beach itself posed a threat to health from bacteria. This wasn't the worst of it. In the following year, antibiotic resistant bacteria were found in the sand. A team of researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle looked at the water and sand of beaches in the Pacific Northwest and found none other than methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a.k.a. MRSA.

The information led a collaboration of scientists and health officials from both Florida and the U.K. to re-examine the regulations of beaches and offer a novel idea that no longer focused on the bacteria in the water, but on the individuality of a beach. Looking at the long-term consistency of the water, the actual number of infections and the potential risks nearby such as sewage outflow, a more comprehensive system could be in place to keep bathers safe and the bacteria at -- or in -- the bay.

Although this method would most likely be effective, it would also be costly and take years to develop. This led a group of American researchers to speculate whether there was a better way to identify risks at individual beaches without having to learn all the trends. This week, the team published their findings and found that a wider perspective was not always better.

The team took samples of sand and water from beaches in California and Massachusetts and looked for all the bacteria present, not just pathogens. They then compared the data to days when beaches were considered to be safe as well as unsafe due to the standard bacteria measurements. The results were not entirely promising. For the most part, the actual bacterial composition changed little regardless of the safety of the beach.

Sadly, the results mean the earlier guidelines regarding the safety of beaches is less than reliable. Even if a beach is considered officially safe, the study reveals there is still the presence of fecal bacteria and other potential pathogens. Though the risk is admittedly smaller, heading to beach can still result in an infection. It amounts to the same chance as playing bingo; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. For a vacationer, however, it's a game to be avoided.

The accumulated evidence over the last century suggests the beach, regardless of the official claim of safety, is still a health concern and could leave you sick. Yet for those heading to these sandy seascapes, there shouldn't be an air of worry or trepidation. A few easy-to-follow suggestions can make a beach trip fun without all the fear. They include: swim in but don't drink the water, wear appropriate insect repellent, and then take a shower with soap afterwards. Although they may seem simple enough, they are perhaps the most critical ways to ensure that your trip to the beach is a blast and not a burden.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

Beach Vacations