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In 2007, The Guardian made the following claim:

Be afraid: sand castles can kill

The US bucket and spade brigade went on full alert yesterday after research by a top physician revealed that people falling into holes dug in the sand had accounted for more fatalities in the US since 1990 than shark attacks - 16 as opposed to 12.

The article, written by Dr Bradley Maron in the New England Journal of Medicine, said sand holes and tunnels, the byproduct of building sand castles and other juvenile beach fortifications, could turn into deathtraps with horrifying speed.

The "article" in question appears to actually only be a letter to the editor. Has there been any follow-up research to confirm that sandcastles really do kill more people than sharks?

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    why you use sandcastles instead of sandholes/tunnels in the title? yes those are the byproduct of making a sandcastle but they are totally different thing. is this a clickbait question? cause i feel like i just got baited hard. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 9:26
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    @encryptoferia The title of the original Guardian article is "Be afraid: sand castles can kill", so blame them for the clickbait. But obviously the point of this question is to verify the claim. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 9:43
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    All I can offer is my own experience as a survivor of an almost death by asphyxiation by a collapsed sand tunnel at an early age, while I also have years of sea baths without one single interaction with a live shark Commented Dec 7, 2022 at 23:38
  • There are other sources of dangerous holes in sand...phys.org/news/2016-06-trees-mysterious-holes-huge-dunes.html
    – DJohnM
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 3:49
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    Given that the total number of deaths in the US at this period in this period as between 55M and 60M, the argument whether 12 or 16 are meaningfully different seems ridiculous. The correct scientific answer would be: the numbers are too small and the data and definitions are too fuzzy to do meaningful statistics.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 9:24

1 Answer 1

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+100

Partial Answer: It's likely very close

Wikipedia provides a list of fatal shark attacks in the US (reproduced below), but there is no such publicly available list for sand collapses so it's hard to compare. (The Guardian confuses the claim somewhat — it's about holes and tunnels in the sand, not sandcastles which are usually aboveground installations. One incident didn't even involve the kid playing in the sand — he was simply walking on the beach and fell in a hole.)

Maron, one of the authors of the letter to the editor, recommended that holes should be no more than knee deep (not deep enough for falling sand to make it difficult for even small children to breathe) and filled back in before you leave so nobody trips into it. This is also what a Virginia Beach master firefighter recommended.

21 US-based shark fatalities, 1990–2006

There were more shark fatalities than were reported by Wikipedia than the original source. I'm not sure why, but it's possible that these extra fatalities were just missed when searching.

Name, Age Date Species
Roy T. Tanaka February 17, 1990 Tiger shark
Suk Kyu (Steve) Park November 19, 1991 Tiger shark
Martha Joy Morrell, 41 November 26, 1991 Tiger shark
Bryan Adona, 29 February 19, 1992 Tiger shark
Aaron A. Romento, 18 November 5, 1992 Tiger shark
Daniel McMoyler December 1993 Tiger shark
Jim Broach January 31, 1994 Tiger shark
Michelle von Emster, 25 April 16, 1994 Great white shark
James Robinson, 42 December 9, 1994 Great white shark
William Covert, 25 September 13, 1995 Bull shark
James Willie Tellasmon, 9 November 21, 1998 Tiger shark
Nahid Davoodabai, 29 March 18, 1999 Unconfirmed, presumed to be a tiger shark
Thadeus Kubinski, 69 August 30, 2000 Bull shark
David Peltier, 10 September 1, 2001 Bull shark
Sergei Zaloukaev, 28 September 3, 2001 Tiger shark
Eric Reichardt, 42 September 16, 2001 Unconfirmed, possibly a bull shark or tiger shark
Deborah Blanche Franzman, 50 August 19, 2003 Great white shark
Courtney Marcher, 22 April 4, 2004 Unconfirmed, possibly a tiger shark
Willis R. McInnis, 57 April 7, 2004 Tiger shark
Randy Fry, 50 August 15, 2004 Great white shark
Jamie Marie Daigle, 14 June 25, 2005 Bull shark

Sand Collapses

I tried to assemble my own list of sand collapse deaths between 1990–2006 in the US and I came up with 6 sources. There's certainly some I missed.

Age Date What
10 1992 "A 7-foot-deep hole in beach sand collapsed on a 10-year-old boy who had helped dig it, and the boy died a day later, authorities said." (Tampa Bay Times)
12 1995 "buried alive after the tunnel he was digging in the sand collapsed" in OC, MD (Washington Post)
11 1997 "died in an accident while digging a sand tunnel near the construction site of her family's new home near Fresno" (Palo Alto Online)
13 August 2000 A beach club in Salisbury, Mass: "digging a hole[...] died after the sand collapsed and buried him in a 5-foot-deep hole" (Orlando Sentinal)
12 July 2001 Died in the hospital after digging into a sand dune at a beach in Marin County, California
17 May 2001 On a RI beach, a teen fell headfirst into a hole and eventually died (Courant)

Notable mentions (it's hard to filter out non-matches):

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    It might be worth clarifying that sand tunnels and holes are distinct from sand castles. A very large sand castle might require the digging of a dangerous hole, but the headline is a little sensational by implying an innocent typical child’s sized sand castle is more dangerous than a shark. Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 5:50
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    @Laurel are you seriously arguing that a typical child's sandcastle involves digging a 5-7 ft hole? Because that's what the headline is implying based on the data you've produced.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 15:02
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    "sandcastles" can be a hyperbolic description of "sand constructions" (tunnels and holes) without invalidating the general point.
    – fectin
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 15:40
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    I'd dispute that digging even a 3 ft hole on a beach is a typical childhood activity, let alone 5-7ft.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 15:50
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    Children often come with ambitious parents/other relatives (particularly fathers). I've seen 3-foot (1 m) holes near sandcastles many times. I haven't seen too many 5-7 ft holes though. You get the right beach (sand consistency), an ebbing tide and some Type-A dads and suddenly insane castle construction pops up everywhere. I've also seen people burying people in the sand (so that just the head is showing). I've been involved in an "Oh $hit, the tide's coming in" rescue attempt once
    – Flydog57
    Commented Dec 6, 2022 at 21:01

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