URI student’s beach research leads to Dept. of Health awareness campaign

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KINGSTON, R.I. – June 28, 2012 – University of Rhode Island student Molly Welsh spent last summer assessing the problem of pet waste on 30 of the state’s beaches. Her results have been turned into a public education campaign that was launched recently by the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“I’m interested in the dynamics of coastal ecosystems and contaminants,” said Welsh, a resident of Jamestown who is studying environmental science and management. “And I’m also interested in the interface between science and public health policy. This project seemed to fit both.”

At the urging of the Department of Health and with funding provided by the URI Undergraduate Research Initiative, Welsh looked for the presence of dogs and visible waste piles at each beach she visited, as well as the availability of bags and receptacles for disposing of pet waste and signs stating whether dogs are prohibited. Water samples were collected at beaches where pet waste was observed.

“Pet waste is 57 percent more toxic than human waste, and one gram of it can contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria,” explained Welsh. “So this is a really serious issue, especially when children are digging in the sand and putting their hands in their mouth. It can even cause beaches and shellfish beds to be closed.”

The URI student also surveyed beachgoers and beach managers. Among the results, 82 percent believe pet waste on public beaches is a problem, and 74 percent believe it should be better regulated. Fewer than half of respondents knew the pet use regulations of the beach they were visiting.

At the conclusion of her research, Welsh prepared educational materials about pet waste on beaches, and the Department of Health professionally produced them for an awareness campaign.

The Department of Health’s Scoop the Poop campaign provides educational posters and brochures to beaches, parks, and veterinary offices. In addition, the department has developed informational web pages at www.health.ri.gov on the hazards of pet waste and what beach-goers can do to protect their families. Public service announcements are also running on many local radio stations.