Microbes in beach sands: Integrating environment, ecology and public health

Richard L. Whitman, Valerie J. Harwood, Thomas A. Edge, Meredith B. Nevers, Muruleedhara Byappanahalli, Kannappan Vijayavel, João Brandão, Michael J. Sadowsky, Elizabeth Wheeler Alm, Allan Crowe, Donna Ferguson, Zhongfu Ge, Elizabeth Halliday, Julie Kinzelman, Greg Kleinheinz, Kasia Przybyla-Kelly, Christopher Staley, Zachery Staley, Helena M. Solo-Gabriele

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


Beach sand is a habitat that supports many microbes, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa (micropsammon). The apparently inhospitable conditions of beach sand environments belie the thriving communities found there. Physical factors, such as water availability and protection from insolation; biological factors, such as competition, predation, and biofilm formation; and nutrient availability all contribute to the characteristics of the micropsammon. Sand microbial communities include autochthonous species/phylotypes indigenous to the environment. Allochthonous microbes, including fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) and waterborne pathogens, are deposited via waves, runoff, air, or animals. The fate of these microbes ranges from death, to transient persistence and/or replication, to establishment of thriving populations (naturalization) and integration in the autochthonous community. Transport of the micropsammon within the habitat occurs both horizontally across the beach, and vertically from the sand surface and ground water table, as well as at various scales including interstitial flow within sand pores, sediment transport for particle-associated microbes, and the large-scale processes of wave action and terrestrial runoff. The concept of beach sand as a microbial habitat and reservoir of FIB and pathogens has begun to influence our thinking about human health effects associated with sand exposure and recreational water use. A variety of pathogens have been reported from beach sands, and recent epidemiology studies have found some evidence of health risks associated with sand exposure. Persistent or replicating populations of FIB and enteric pathogens have consequences for watershed/beach management strategies and regulatory standards for safe beaches. This review summarizes our understanding of the community structure, ecology, fate, transport, and public health implications of microbes in beach sand. It concludes with recommendations for future work in this vastly under-studied area.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)329-368
Number of pages40
JournalReviews in Environmental Science and Biotechnology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Beach sand
  • Fate
  • Fecal indicator bacteria
  • Pathogens
  • Psammon
  • Water quality


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