Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year 8-10 Research Grants (RFP-VI)

Project Overview

Beach Exposure And Child HEalth Study (BEACHES)

Principal Investigator
University of Miami
Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering
Member Institutions
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, University of Arkansas Medical Sciences - College of Public Health, University of Miami


The fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) drilling platform during April 2010 resulted in significant losses from the Gulf’s economy which was caused, in part, by oil impacts to 1,728 km of coastline and uncertainties about health risks and the subsequent closure of 89 beaches. The uncertainty concerning health risks were driven by the lack knowledge about precise exposures, especially for a vulnerable group, children who interact with beach water and sand intimately through play activities. Uncertainty also existed for the spread of oil spill chemicals (OSCs) in beach sand, water and air. To help guide policies for beach closures and to protect the public’s health, research is needed to improve the assessment of exposures by integrating location- and time-specific child activity patterns with more realistic OSC concentration distributions at oil spill impacted beaches.


Research Goal and Objectives: The mission of BEACHES is to evaluate health risks of OSCs by integrating realistic play activities and distributions of OSCs in the beach environments. BEACHES will accomplish this mission by pursuing the following objectives.


  •  Quantify children’s exposure in the beach environment taking into account beach physical factors which influence child play activities and the distribution of OSCs. 
  • Utilize historical data from prior oil spills to create, test, and validate algorithms that describe time-space specific concentrations of OSCs in beach zones where children play.


These contributions will be used to create an exposure modeling and estimation platform that can guide beach closures in light of health risks and can promote safe beach usage.


Scientific Impact: The guiding hypothesis of this project is that beach physical factors influence child play activities, impact the distribution of OSCs, and ultimately influence child health risks. This proposal will test this hypothesis through the following three projects.


P-1, Human Activities and Exposure Factors. Beach-related activities that expose children to OSCs will be quantified at four beach sites to evaluate influences of beach physical factors on play activities. State-of-the-science methodology will include digital video-recording/video-translation to evaluate child beach play coupled with a sand adhesion study to improve estimates of dermal exposures. In addition, surveys will be used to capture broader scale exposure factors for children. 

P-2, OSC Distributions. Algorithms to compute more precise concentrations of OSCs in air, water and beach sands will be created using OSC data already collected by different agencies. These algorithms will be developed by comparing spatial and temporal distributions of OSCs at oil impacted beaches with output from recognized and validated fate and transport models. The algorithms will be contextualized in terms of beach characteristics and child beach play so that OSC concentration distributions can be assigned to play locations and activities as documented from P-1. 

P-3, Risk Assessment. Human Activities and Exposure Factors research (P-1) and OSC Distributions (P-2) will be used to develop a risk assessment modeling platform that considers cumulative (multiple contaminants with same health end point) and aggregate (ingestion, dermal, and inhalation) risks. Statistical methods based upon Monte Carlo approaches will be used to provide confidence bounds on the estimated risk, thus providing reliable information on variability and uncertainty for beaches with different physical characteristics. Sensitivity analysis will be conducted to provide information on data gaps and where further research would provide the greatest benefit.


Societal Impact: The impact of this proposal on society will include:

  • Creation of Knowledge: New information will be discovered on beach-specific activities for children and the variability of OSCs in the environment relevant to child play.
  • Improved Risk Models: A new risk modeling platform will be created to provide more realistic assessments of cancer and non-cancer health risks in efforts to guide beach closure policies.
  • Improved Response: The modeling platform created through this project can be used in contingency planning to evaluate the level of response that is needed by regulatory and responsible parties.
  • Improved Resilience: The new risk modeling platform will serve as a resource tool to prepare, respond, and recover from oil spills. It will empower agencies and communities to better understand and communicate risks.

This research was made possible by a grant from The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.