Parasites in Sandboxes: Should You Be Worried?
Researchers warn that a dangerous parasite found in cat feces poses a major health hazard.
It’s enough to strike fear in the heart of any playground-loving parent: the threat of a dangerous parasite lurking in a sandbox near you.
The parasite, known as T. gondii, is found in cat feces and is the reason why pregnant women are discouraged from emptying litter boxes — the parasite puts developing fetuses at risk. But cats, when they’re not relieving themselves in litter boxes, tend to deposit their excrement in loose soil, including sandboxes. According to new research, cat feces released into the environment now total some 1.2 million metric tons per year in the U.S., as MSN recently reported.
There’s evidence that the parasite — which causes the eye and organ-damaging disease toxoplasmosis — poses “a signiﬁcant public health hazard, especially in the sandboxes of children, gardens, and other places favored by cats for defecation,” researchers E. Fuller Torrey and Robert H. Yolken wrote in a recent report in the journal Trends in Parasitology.
So how worried should you really be? It depends on whom you ask.
Dr. Sheldon L. Kaplan, chief of Infectious Disease Service at Texas Children’s Hospital, said that acquiring toxoplasmosis from sandboxes is possible “but not very common in normal children in my experience.”
When he talks to parents, he said, sandbox safety risks just don’t come up.
“I would spend time discussing more important issues such as preventing infections through vaccines, preventing serious injuries on bikes using helmets, car seats, frequent washing of hands, etc.” he said.
But Gordon Edward Schutze, also of Texas Children’s and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases, offered a more stern warning, even for those who keep sandboxes in their own backyards.
“We have known for years that cats will use these sandboxes and it is one of the reasons we have not been proponents of kids having sandboxes at their homes, etc,” he said.
Raccoons, he said, are also known to transmit rare parasites by leaving feces in sandboxes.
“These boxes are just bathrooms for a number of animals,” Schutze said.
Kaplan, Schutze and the T. gondii researchers agree on is that if you are intent on having junior play in a sandbox, a private sandbox that is kept covered when not in use is the best way to go.
Parents like Courtney DePinto, of Chicago, say they’re doing just that.
“We live in a city and my child is not allowed to play in the public sandbox at the park,” she said. “I just feel like it is dangerous and disgusting! I am going to purchase a sandbox for our patio that I will keep covered where he can play.”
Another safety tip? Make sure your child’s hands are washed after sand play, said Dr. Mimi Koehm of Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Massachusetts, a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
“As in most matters of public health, ” she said, “one of the most important ways to avoid infection is good hand hygiene…Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing!”
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