Exploring fungal contamination in the sand and water around the Mediterranean Sea and other water bodies of Europe – relevance to human health and wellbeing

Coordinators Esther Segal (Israel), João Brandão (Portugal)


Microbial life in beach sands has been addressed by very few research groups until recently. In the last two decades, however, the number of scientific publications and reports on this subject has been growing exponentially. Most publications address methodological approaches, including microbiome characterization and its influence on human health. Yet, to date there has been no clear and appropriate guidance on the subject.

In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) published their Guidelines for safe recreational water environments, recommending that sand be looked into, especially at higher latitudes where due to lower sea water temperatures the population tends to spend less time bathing than in countries with warmer waters; but still uses beaches for all kinds of recreational purposes (1).

Fungi are an under-investigated biological group which is not represented in the regulation of recreational water anywhere. However, invasive fungal infections are associated with a high rate of mortality and other ailments. For example, many Candida species are opportunistic pathogens. They are known fecal contaminants that tend to cause mucosal infections of individuals that are susceptible due to underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or immune suppression. Babies and toddlers with their immune systems still immature, represent another at risk group.

Fungal genera that have been isolated from beach sands include Aspergillus, Chrysosporium, Fusarium, Scedosporium, Scytalidium, Scopulariopsis (2), Candida (3), Penicillium, Rhodotorula (4), Cladosporium, Mucor, Stachybotrys (5, 6, 7, 8), Phialemonium (9) and many others. Trichophyton and Microsporum, associated with skin and nail infections, have also been reported for beach sand (2).


This project aims raising the awareness to fungal contaminants of sand by:

  • concentrating on the isolation and identification of the fungal flora in sand and water
  • emphasizing implications of findings on human health and wellbeing.


Most groups working in beach safety microbial indicators have one aim only: to avoid run-off and tide retraction contamination of recreational waters by whatever may lie in the sand (specifically, fecal indicator bacteria, the current parameters used in recreational water quality regulation due to their strong correlation with waterborne gastro-intestinal illness).

This project will help generate data to show the importance of the beach as an exposure means to fungal flora.


  1. Culture, quantification and identification of colonies by:
  2. Classical methods: Phenotypic characterization
  3. Biochemical: Mass spectroscopic methods (MALDI-TOF)
  4. Molecular methods: depending on each laboratory’s internal procedure (ITS identification or NGS on part of samples) (inter-calibrated by a ring test)
  5. Fungal Parameters:
  6. Candida species (primarily C. albicans) – frequently associated with fecal contamination
  7. Dermatophytes – indicators of human/animal dermal contamination (including the Arthroderma insingulare complex, formerly known as Trichophyton terrestre)
  8. Allergenic fungi – Aspergillus, Penicilium, Paecelomyces

Expected Results:

  1. Generating data that will help set the fungal contaminants on the map of public health assessment of recreational water environments (inland and coastal beaches).
  2. Aggregate a European group with interest in this theme and consolidate the cooperation on the subject.
  3. Characterization of natural diversity amongst areas included in the study.

Study timeline:

The project starts during the bathing season of 2018 of each location (flexible starting dates for each participant). Sampling will be carried out during all 4 seasons.

It is planned to have Study Group- meetings at Mycological Conferences to present and discuss data and eventually summarize the data in scientific publications.

Accumulation and analysis of the data may lead to suggestions for regulation guidelines.

Study Participation:

The study group includes about 20 participants from 15 ECMM countries.


  1. WHO (2003) Guidelines for safe recreational water environments. Volume 1: Coastal and fresh waters. Geneva: World Health Organization
  2. Sabino R, Veríssimo C, Cunha MA, Wergikoski B, Ferreira FC, Rodrigues R, Parada H, Falcão L, Rosado L, Pinheiro C, Paixão E, Brandão J. Pathogenic fungi: an unacknowledged risk at coastal resorts? New insights on microbiological sand quality in Portugal. Mar Pollut Bull. 2011; 62[7]:1506–11.
  3. Shah A, Abdelzaher A, Phillips M, Hernandez R, Solo-Gabriele H, Kish J, Scorzetti G, Fell J, Diaz M, Scott T, Lukasik J, Harwood V, McQuaig S, Sinigalliano C, Gidley M, Wanless D, Ager A, Lui J, Stewart J, Plano L, Fleming L. Indicator microbes correlate with pathogenic bacteria, yeasts and helminthes in sand at a subtropical recreational beach site. J Appl Microbiol. 2011; 110:1571–1583.
  4. Vogel C, Rogerson A, Schatz S, Laubach H, Tallman A, Fell J. Prevalence of yeast in beach sand at three bathing beaches in South Florida. Water Res. 2007; 41[9]:1915–1920.
  5. Gonzales M, Hanlin TR, Herrera T, Ulloa M. Fungi colonizing hair-bats from three coastal beaches of Mexico. Mycoscience. 2000; 41:259-262.
  6. Migahed F. Distribution of fungi in the sandy soil of Egyptian beaches. Mycobiology. 2003; 31:61-67.
  7. Gomes DNF, Cavalcanti MAQ, Fernandes MJS, Lima DMM and Passavante JZO, Filamentous fungi isolated from sand and water of Bairro Novo and Casa Caiada beaches. Braz J Biol. 2008; 68:577-582.
  8. Bik MH, Halanych M, Sharma J, Thomas K. Dramatic shifts in benthic microbial eukaryote communities following the deep water horizon oil spill. PLoS ONE. 2012; 7: 1-6.
  9. Pong D, Marom T, Makishima T. Phialemonium infection complicating chronic suppurative otitis media. Med Mycol Case Rep. 2014; 4:5-7. doi: 10.1016/j.mmcr.2014.01.001


< back