A shark attack probably won’t kill you, and other lessons from the science of the beach

at 02:52 PM ET, 05/27/2012

Memorial Day serves as the unofficial start of summer for most of
You’d probably survive an encounter with this shark. (PASCAL GERAGHTY - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
America, with many trekking out to the beach and soaking up some sun. Here at Wonkblog, we’re taking a different sort of trip: a journey through the science of a visit to the beach. It’s not quite seaside reading, but scientists have learned a decent amount about how we change when we’re close to water. So, without further ado, here are a few of their most choice findings.

1. If you get attacked by a shark, you’ll probably live. It’s a bit terrifying that fatalities from from shark attacks hit a 20-year high in 2011, with 12 people across the world dying from encounters with the animals. American tourists can rest slightly assured though, that all of those shark-related fatalities were outside the United States. And, in general, shark attacks actually aren’t fatal. A 2001 review of 86 cases found that 81 percent of those attacked suffered only minor injuries that required “a simple, primary suture,” the researchers said. Take that, Jaws.

2. Surfboards, however, can do serious damage. One paper in the American Family Medicine Journal looked at what beach injuries tended to be most prevalent, focusing on one beach in Australia (shark attacks did not make the list). They looked over the 211 injuries that turned up in local health care facilities over the summer. Of those, one in five was caused by a surfboard. Another 19 percent were caused by encounters with beach litter.

3. There’s a whole lot of littering. In 1998, a team of researchers in Southern California spent a summer collecting all the trash left on Orange County beaches in August and September. All told, they gathered up 106 million items that weighed 12 metric tons. More trash was found behind on the “rocky shorelines” than on the “high-use sandy beaches.” As for what tourists leave behind, other research suggests cigarette butts to be a common nuisance.

4. How to get your kid to use sunscreen, without really trying. Use of sunscreen products has risen steadily in recent years, but researchers find that it tends to drop off in adolescence. How to change that? Focus on what young teens care about most, of course: How they look. A 2008 study in the Journal of Health Education Research had young teens view pictures of skin before and after exposure to ultraviolet rays, with the post-rays skin looking decidedly damaged. Among the teens who saw the pictures, intention to use sunscreen on the next trip to the beach jumped from 35 to 59 percent. Parents, take note.

 
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