If you watch a child at the beach or in the sandbox, you might see him crunching on a few grains, either accidentally or on purpose. Some kids -- and adults -- crave non-nutritive substances like sand. But sand in the sandbox or on the beach is often a favored litter box for outside cats or other animals. If contaminated with feces, those pristine- appearing grains can harbor bacteria that can make your little one sick if he puts them in his mouth. Sterilized sand fresh from the store doesn't present the same risks, but isn't risk-free.
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Fecal contamination can introduce bacteria into sand on the beach or in sandboxes. While beaches often monitor their water for bacterial contamination, fewer measure the bacteria count of the beach sand. A Woods Hole Center for Ocean and Human Health study published in the January 2011 issue of "Environmental Science and Technology" found fecal bacteria nearly ubiquitous in beach sand. In some cases, the amount of bacteria in sand is 40 times that of bacteria in the water, according to Chris Heaney, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in July 2009 quoted on NBC News. Heaney is the lead author on a study published in the 2009 issue of the "American Journal of Epidemiology" on bacterial contamination of sand and diarrhea.
Enteral Illness Risks
Fecal bacteria such as E. coli and Enterococcus bacteria can contaminate sand on the beach and in your neighborhood or home sandbox. While these bacteria are found everywhere, high levels in sand can increase your child's risk of developing a gastrointestinal infection and diarrhea, Heaney's study found. Enteral illnesses spread through hand-to-mouth transmission. Digging in the sand increased the risk of developing a diarrheal illness; being buried in the sand, which provides even more direct contact, increased the risk even more. In 2010, two California playgrounds removed sand play areas after outbreaks of E. coli- associated illness, the Stanford University Peninsula Press reports.
Cat feces can harbor Toxoplasma gondii, which cause an infection called toxoplasmosis. You might remember your doctor telling you not to clean the cat litter box when you were pregnant; toxoplasmosis is the reason that that warning. The infection can have devastating effects on a developing fetus. Healthy children infected with toxoplasmosis may have little more than swollen glands for a few weeks, but immunocompromised children can develop brain or nervous system involvement.
Safe Sand Play
If you have a home sandbox, cover it every night, to keep the local animal and insect population out of it. If sand gets wet during the day, let it dry out before covering, since wet sand provides a good medium for bacterial growth, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Make sure your child washes his hands after playing in the sand and use hand sanitizer frequently. Change the sand in the sandbox every two years or whenever it's contaminated by feces, including a child's dirty diaper. Sterilized sand still in bags is safe from contaminants, but can still present a choking hazard or cause intestinal obstruction if your child ingests a large amount.