Survival potential of Escherichia coli and Enterococci in subtropical beach sand: implications for water quality managers

J Environ Qual. 2008 May 2;37(3):898-905. doi: 10.2134/jeq2007.0312. Print May-Jun 2008.


Fecal bacteria have traditionally been used as indicator organisms to monitor the quality of recreational waters. Recent work has questioned the robustness of traditional indicators, particularly at seawater bathing beaches. For example, a study of Florida beaches found unexpectedly high abundances of Escherichia coli, fecal coliforms, and enterococci in beach sand. The aim of the present study was to explain these abundances by assessing the survival of E. coli and enterococci in beach sand relative to seawater. We used a combination of quantitative laboratory mesocosm experiments and field observations. Results suggested that E. coli and enterococci exhibited increased survivability and growth in sand relative to seawater. Because fecal bacteria are capable of replicating in sand, at least under controlled laboratory conditions, the results suggest that sand may be an important reservoir of metabolically active fecal organisms. Experiments with "natural" mesocosms (i.e., unsterilized sand or water rich in micropredators and native bacteria) failed to show the same increases in fecal indicators as was found in sterile sand. It is postulated that this was due to predation and competition with indigenous bacteria in these "natural" systems. Nonetheless, high populations of indicators were maintained and recovered from sand over the duration of the experiment as opposed to the die-off noted in water. Indicator bacteria may wash out of sand into shoreline waters during weather and tidal events, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of these indicators as predictors of health risk and complicating the interpretations for water quality managers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Enterococcus / growth & development*
  • Enterococcus / isolation & purification
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development*
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification
  • Seawater / microbiology
  • Silicon Dioxide*
  • Water Microbiology*


  • Silicon Dioxide