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Studying Playtime at the Beach

A UM-led study is examining how children’s play behavior at beaches could impact their health.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

It was an early Friday morning at Haulover Beach, and the crowds of sunbathers, swimmers and surfers had yet to arrive. Madelin Perez-Lucas and her 5-year-old son quickly took advantage of the ideal conditions, wading into the surf to play in knee-deep water and then moving to a patch of dry sand just off shore to build sand sculptures.

While this may appear to have been just another summer day at the beach for mother and child, it was actually unlike any Madelin and her son had ever experienced. For only a few feet away, a cameraman filmed her son’s every move while a T-shirt clad college student holding a clipboard and pencil documented everything the boy did—from his attempts to put seaweed in his mouth to how many times he rolled in the sand.

“We’ve always known that when children play at the beach they engage in certain behaviors that put their health at risk, especially if they’re at a contaminated beach. Now we’re actually quantifying it,” said Helena Solo-Gabriele, a University of Miami professor of environmental engineering who is the lead investigator on a new study examining children’s play behavior at beaches in Florida and Texas.

Using video footage, special software and data, the Beach Exposure and Child Health Study, or BEACHES, will document in detail the behavioral play patterns of 100 children ages 1 to 6 at two beaches in metropolitan Miami—Crandon Park and Haulover—and two in Galveston, Texas, with the ultimate goal of understanding “the risks to recreational beach use at oil-contaminated beaches,” said Solo-Gabriele.

Funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), which was created through a $500 million commitment from BP to examine the long-term environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BEACHES is a collaborative study involving UM, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

So far, video footage of 25 children at Crandon Park and 25 more at Haulover Beach has been taken. When combined with behavioral-tracking software and an algorithm, the footage will help Alesia Ferguson, associate professor at Arkansas’s College of Public Health, build a predictive model of activity patterns to establish a health-risk assessment.

“What do they touch? How many times do they try to put their hands in their mouths? Do they try to consume any seaweed? How much time do they spend in the water? We’ll be looking at everything,” said Ferguson.

The children, who were required to have no abrasions, open wounds or scabs that would allow potentially harmful bacteria to invade their bodies, also underwent a battery of other tests, including having their hands pressed in sand and later rinsed to determine how much of it adheres to their skin after a typical play period.

UM graduate and undergraduate students collected water, sand, and seaweed samples for lab analysis, as the study will also determine the distribution of bacteria concentrations at beaches.

“Even though this study is being funded by GoMRI and they’re interested in what types of play behavior might impact children if the beach were contaminated with oil or oil products, we can extrapolate our data as to what would happen if the beach were contaminated with bacteria from microbes or anything else that could pose a health hazard to children,” said Maribeth Gidley, a research scientist at the University of Miami’s Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, who is collaborating with Solo-Gabriele on the study.

Later this month, Gidley, Solo-Gabriele and Ferguson will travel to Texas to assist UT Health Science Center investigators in getting their portion of the study underway. The Galveston component will also include 50 children—25 at Stewart Beach and 25 others at Urban Park Beach.

The study, according to Solo-Gabriele, is the first of its kind and could help scientists and public officials well into the future. “With our data, we’ll be able to establish time lines for closing and reopening contaminated beaches,” she said, noting that the two beaches in the Miami portion of the study are not polluted.

As for Madelin, mother of the 5-year-old boy who was a study participant at Haulover Beach, the study is just as valuable for parents. “We need to know what dangers are out there,” she said, “and that it’s important to keep an eye on our kids.”

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