Untreated sewage contamination of beach sand from a leaking underground sewage system

J. Brandão, I. Albergaria, J. Albuquerque, S. José, J. Grossinho, F. C. Ferreira, A. Raposo, R. Rodrigues, C. Silva, L. Jordao, M. Sousa, M. H. Rebelo, C. Veríssimo, R. Sabino, T. Amaro, F. Cardoso, M. Patrão-Costa, H. Solo-Gabriele

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Thirty people (mostly children) experienced an episode of skin rash days after a sand sifting beach operation at Porto Pim Beach in Faial, Azores during June 2019. An environmental and epidemiologic investigation was conducted to identify the cause of the outbreak of skin rash. The epidemiologic investigation found that some of the patients experiencing symptoms had never entered the beach water. During the pollution period and throughout the epidemiologic investigation, faecal indicator bacteria levels (94 CFU/100 ml for intestinal enterococci and 61 CFU/100 ml for Escherichia coli) in water remained under the limits used for the ninety-five percentile calculation of an Excellent coastal and transitional bathing water defined in the Portuguese Legislation (100 CFU/100 ml for intestinal enterococci and 250 CFU/100 ml for Escherichia coli). Thus sand contact was considered as a likely primary exposure route. Sand microbiological analysis for faecal indicator organisms and electron microscopy strongly suggested faecal contamination. Chemical analysis of the sand also revealed a concomitant substance compatible with sodium-hypochlorite as analysed using gas chromatography and subsequently confirmed by free chlorine analysis. Inspection of the toilet facilities and sewage disposal system revealed a leaking sewage distribution box. Collectively, results suggest that the cause of the outbreak was the leaking underground sewage distribution box that serviced the beach toilet facilities (40 m from beach), where sodium-hypochlorite was used for cleaning and disinfection. This sewage then contaminated the surficial sands to which beach goers were exposed. Chlorine being an irritant substance, was believed to have been the cause of the symptoms given the sudden presentation and dissipation of skin rashes. No gastro-intestinal illness was reported during this episode and during the following 30 days. Like water, beach sand should also be monitored for safety, especially for areas serviced by aged infrastructure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number140237
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Oct 20 2020


  • Bathing
  • Beach
  • Pollution
  • Public health
  • Sand
  • Waterborne

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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