Auburn Researcher Says Tar Balls are "Magnets for Bacteria"

Auburn Researcher Says Tar Balls are "Magnets for Bacteria"

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Doctor Cova Arias is a professor of aquatic microbiology at Auburn University and an expert on the often-deadly and sometimes flesh-eating bacteria vibrio vulnificus. Arias’ research at Auburn and through the school’s lab at Dauphin Island has focused on vibrio’s impact on the oyster industry which was brought to a standstill three years ago by the BP oil spill.

In 2010, when the spill washed ashore huge quantities of oil, out of curiosity, Arias set out to discover if vibrio were present in tar balls. She was highly surprised by what she found as she studied tar on the Alabama and Mississippi coasts.

“What was clear to us was that the tar balls contain a lot of vibrio vulnificus,” said Arias.

Arias can show an observer vibrio in the lab as it appears as a ring on the top of the solution in a test tube.  Vibrio is not something, though, that a person can see in the water, sand, or tar balls.

But, Arias’ research shows it there, especially in the tar balls, in big numbers.

According to Dr. Arias’ studies, there were ten times more vibrio vulnificus bacteria in tar balls than in the surrounding sand, and 100 times more than in the surrounding water.

“In general, (the tar balls) are like a magnet for bacteria,” said Arias.

Arias’ theory is that vibrio feeds on the microbes that are breaking down the tar.

She and researchers looked at tar balls that washed in to the same areas they had previously studied so they could therefore make valid comparisons to before the oil spill.

“What we also found was in water, the numbers were about ten times higher than the numbers that have reported before from that area,” said Arias

So the water alone had ten times as much vibrio as before the oil spill… and the tar balls themselves had 100-times more vibrio than the water.

Vibrio is contracted thru some sort of cut or abrasion on the skin, usually by the young or old, or someone with a compromised immune system. Doctors who fight infectious diseases, though, say the high levels of vibrio in and around tar balls should be taken seriously by everyone due to the random, but deadly, nature of bacteria.

“It can be very little exposure,” said Dr. John Vande Waa, an infectious disease specialist at the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile. “Just the wrong place at the wrong time.”

BP disputes any tar ball - vibrio connection. BP sent this statement to News Five:
“The Arias study does not support a conclusion that tar balls may represent a new or important route of human exposure for Vibrio infection, or that the detection of Vibrio in tar balls would impact the overall public health risk, since there are other far more common sources of Vibrio, such as seawater and oysters.”


Tomorrow, News-5 talks with beach goers to find out what they know about the dangers of tar balls and whether or not they are concerned.

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