Toxic bacteria often lurk in children’s and dogs’ sandboxes

Playground sandboxes can harbor deadly - and drug resistant - strains of the diarrhea-causing bacterium Clostridum difficile, research in Spain shows.

Often called "C. diff" for short, the bug has typically been considered a problem for very ill hospitalized patients, but it's increasingly being found outside hospitals, Dr. Jose Blanco of the faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and colleagues write in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health.

Just as squeamish parents might expect, past studies have confirmed that public sandboxes can host disease-causing organisms, including parasites and bacteria. In the new study, Blanco's team tested sand from 20 sandboxes for children and 20 for dogs in Madrid parks.

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Twenty-one of the sandboxes tested positive for C. diff. Of these, eight of the samples were toxin-forming strains, the type that causes disease in humans, while the remaining twelve were non-toxigenic.

The findings are not cause for alarm, Blanco told Reuters Health in an email interview. He noted that C. difficile does not sicken children younger than 2 years old. "We have to learn to live with these agents. If our children live in a highly clean environment, their immune system will not be developed in the correct way, and probably, problems like allergy will be present," he added.

"It is important do not leave organic material in the sandboxes, that could serve as food to different kinds of animals in the night. And also clean the sandboxes of possible animal fecal material (mainly in the morning, before the use by children)."

It's not surprising to find C. difficile in sandboxes, Philip Tierno Jr., a professor of pathology and microbiology at NYU School of Medicine in New York City, told Reuters Health in a telephone interview. Even though the study was done in Spain, he added, "it's really something that could have been done here because C. difficile is ubiquitous." Many people, including children, carry the bug without being sick, Tierno said, and it can now even be found in the food supply.

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The best defense against C. difficile is careful handwashing, before eating and drinking and before touching one's face, according to Tierno. While soap and water are effective against the germ, he said, alcohol-based sanitizing gels will not kill the bug.

Private sandboxes are likely to be relatively clean, but they should be covered when not in use to avoid bacteria and parasites carried by animals like rats and raccoons, Tierno said.

He noted that when he takes his grandchildren to the park, he steers clear of sandboxes. "I don't see the need," he said. "I'd rather take my kid to the beach and play with the sand there."

SOURCE: Zoonoses and Public Health, online July 7, 2017

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