Student dies in beach sand pit: Experts warn of suffocation danger

A student who died in a Southern California beach sand pit collapse is among dozens who have suffocated in the little-recognized recreational danger. Health experts warn never to step into a sand hole deeper than knee-level.

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    A student died this week in a sand pit on a Southern California beach. Experts advise never getting in a sand hole deeper than your knees. Here sand sculptor Matthew Sloboda sprays his sand castle with water during the annual Coney Island Sand Sculpting Contest in New York July 21, 2012.
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A South Korean exchange student  suffocated in Southern California beach sand pit on Wednesday, in what experts have warned is a recreational hazard few recognize.

Sharks and drowning may be chief beach-going concerns, but the popular beach pastime of digging sand holes has raised concern among health experts who have studied dozens of accidental deaths like that of Mingyu "Paul" Sang on Wednesday.  Mr. Sang and students and staff from The Master's College,   a small Christian college in Santa Clarita, Calif. dug a hole that was 6 feet  to 8 feet deep. Sang had climbed inside when it collapsed and buried him.

There were 52 documented fatal and nonfatal cases of accidents in dry-sand holes excavated for recreational purposes in the decade between 1997 and 2007, noted a June 2007 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine from Bradley A. Maron, a Harvard Medical School physician; his son Barry J. Maron a doctor at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation; and Tammy S. Haas, a nurse at the Foundation.

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“During the summer-recreation and beach season, we believe it is timely to underscore a potential but underrecognized safety risk associated with leisure activities in open-sand environments,” the letter said. “The most common setting [is] a public beach in a coastal area, near the shoreline (in 41 cases), with the remaining cases (11 cases) occurring near the home.”

The letter noted settings familiar to anyone who has gone to the beach: 'Typically, victims became completely submerged in the sand when the walls of the hole unexpectedly collapsed, leaving virtually no evidence of the hole or the location of the victim. Collapse was inadvertently triggered by a variety of circumstances, including digging, tunneling, jumping, or falling into the hole. These collapses resulted in the death of 31 persons. The other 21 persons  survived by virtue of timely rescue involving extrication from the sand; many of them required cardiopulmonary resuscitation, performed by a bystander.”

The best way to avoid danger is to not let young kids play in sand unattended and never to get in a hole deeper than knee level, the elder Maron and other experts told the Associated Press in 2007.

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