Auburn scientists find tar balls are better left alone

March 26, 2012 by Jamie Creamer

( -- The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the waves of tar balls deposited on the beaches shortly thereafter prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to produce a tar ball fact sheet. Among the factoids was one stating that those sticky, coin-sized clumps of weathered oil, though unsightly and annoying, are not a human health hazard.

But new research findings out of Auburn University indicate that are reservoirs for a multitude of bacteria, including at least one pathogen that can cause life-threatening sickness in some humans.

The pathogen is Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium that thrives in warm seawater, is absorbed by filter-feeding oysters and is most often associated with severe illness and death in individuals with certain medical conditions, such as or cancer, who eat . As such, V. vulnificus infection is the leading cause of death related to seafood consumption in the United States.

Especially among those at-risk populations, however, exposure to the bacterium through a wound can lead to tissue-killing, potentially , and it is in that context, Auburn aquatic and study leader Cova Arias said the discovery of high numbers of V. vulnificus in tar balls has "clear public health implications."

"Tar balls are sticky, especially during the warmer months, and they are difficult to remove," the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures associate professor said. "If a tar ball contacts a skin abrasion, it could vector V. vilnificus and cause severe that may lead to death. People whose immune systems are compromised should be fully aware of the risks and go out of their way to avoid any contact with tar balls."

An unexpected finding in a post oil spill study originally designed to monitor total bacterial counts in tar balls that washed ashore from to Gulfport, Miss., in the weeks and months following the BP disaster, was that tar balls along the Alabama and Mississippi coasts harbor high levels of V. vulnificus.

"We already had the V. vulnificus methodology set up in our lab, so it made sense to analyze the tar balls for the pathogen," said Arias, for whom a major research focus is food safety in oysters and the development of post harvest techniques and processes that significantly reduce V. vulnificus counts in the bivalve mollusks.

At each location along the coast where they gathered tar balls, Arias and collaborators Ash Bullard, a marine parasitologist and Auburn fisheries assistant professor, and graduate research assistant Zhen Tao also collected sand and seawater samples and, in their analyses, found that the total bacterial counts and the number of V. vulnificus bacteria in tar balls up and down the Gulf coast were significantly higher than in the sand and seawater samples collected from the same sites.

Though, based on their volume and when they began to appear, the small wads of tar the scientists collected from along the Gulf beaches likely were from the BP oil spill, tests to officially make that determination were cost-prohibitive. But Arias said the source of tar balls is inconsequential to the study.

"We believe our findings apply to tar balls regardless of their origin," she said. "What matters is that people be aware that tar balls can be hazardous to their health and that the more tar balls you encounter, the higher the risk."

The research findings were published online Nov. 23, 2011, in EcoHealth, a global, peer-reviewed journal of the International Association for Ecology and Health.

Explore further: BP oil not degrading on Gulf floor, study says

Related Stories

BP oil not degrading on Gulf floor, study says

September 20, 2011

(AP) -- Tar balls washed onto Gulf of Mexico beaches by Tropical Storm Lee earlier this month show that oil left over from last year's BP spill isn't breaking down as quickly as some scientists thought it would, university ...

US closes shrimping near oil spill as 'precaution'

November 25, 2010

US authorities Wednesday closed to shrimping a section of the Gulf of Mexico near the area of a massive oil spill this year as a precautionary measure after a commercial shrimper found tar balls in his net.

Florida tests inventors' sand-cleaning ideas

July 2, 2010

(AP) -- Some inventors came with cotton fiber rolls, others with oil-clumping polymer mixes and one brought a specially designed rake. Their task: clean layers of crude oil and tar from a once-pristine Florida beach and ...

BP deep-cleaning Gulf beaches amid new worries

November 18, 2010

(AP) -- What's typically a beautiful, quiet stretch of beach in the fall now resembles a construction site. Bulldozers and yellow dump trucks shake the ground; a giant sifting machine spits clean sand out one end, tar balls ...

Tar balls hit Texas as oil spill cost soars

July 6, 2010

Tar balls from the Gulf of Mexico spill have turned up on the Texas coast, expanding the oil slick's impact to all five Gulf states, officials said late Monday, as BP's disaster costs soared above three billion dollars.

Recommended for you

Climate change made Harvey rainfall 15 percent more intense

December 14, 2017

A team of scientists from World Weather Attribution, including researchers from Rice University and other institutions in the United States and Europe, have found that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall ...

Hydraulic fracturing negatively impacts infant health

December 13, 2017

From North Dakota to Ohio to Pennsylvania, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has transformed small towns into energy powerhouses. While some see the new energy boom as benefiting the local economy and decreasing ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 26, 2012
So my interpretation of the title versus the article is that you shouldn't pick one up when on vacation.

And that the article does not imply that the tarballs should not be cleaned up.

But I think the main point here is that the headline and the article are not written coherently together that is easily interpretable.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.