The Alabama coast attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, and since the 2010 BP Oil Spill, tens of thousands of tar balls.
A couple hundred miles away at Auburn University, Dr. Cova Arias conducts research that shows tar balls and the sand and water around them have sharply elevated levels of the flesh eating and potentially deadly bacteria Vibrio Vulnificus.
Arias recommends not touching tar balls with the bare skin. That’s because Vibrio enters the human system thru scratches or cuts on the skin. Sometimes the cuts may not be visible.
“You may have micro-abrasions so you don’t even know you have a cut,” said Arias. “So, I would stay away from the tar balls.”
The results of Arias’ research have not been widely reported. As Tropical Storm Karen washed in a new batch of tar balls last month, beach goers were oblivious to the dangers.
“No, not really, it doesn’t seem to be a concern,” said Mike Hadley of St. Louis Mo.
Dusty Austin of Fernando, MS was equally unconcerned.
This summer when News-5 walked the entire Alabama coast to assess the number of tar-balls, the attitudes were much the same.
“I don’t think that a tar ball that has sand and shells on it is going to impact my health or me enjoying the beach at all,” said one beachgoer.
The bacteria-filled tar balls remain an object of beachgoer curiosity.
“I was just looking for shells in the sand and came across it,” said Tara Hadley of St. Louis. “Just looking, I picked it up thinking it was a shell.
Martha Ellison of Prattville, walking the beach with her teenage daughter, admits to handling tar balls on a routine basis.
“Yeah. I’ve gotten them all over our fingers, stepped on them, gotten them on our feet.”
Arias’ studies show without a doubt that significantly elevated levels of Vibrio are in and around tar balls. But so far, there’s been no documented case of someone getting the flesh-eating disease from them. Still, Arias urges caution.
“We don’t know if you can get infected with Vibrio Vulnificus by touching a tar ball, but the possibility is there,” she said.
BP stresses that there has been no human case of Vibrio attributed to contact with tar balls. A BP statement sent to News Five read: “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.”
BP says it asked the Alabama Department of Public Health in 2012, if its beach clean-up workers were at risk? Dr. Thomas Miller, ADPH Deputy Director for Medical Affairs, replied in a letter that there was no evidence of increased cases of Vibrio since the oil spill. Miller indicated, however, that could have been a result of fewer tourists being at the beach.
Arias says the only other significant study of Vibrio and tar balls was conducted following a spill off the coast of Nigeria and showed similar results. Arias has not one any follow-up work since 2010, citing a lack of funds, but says she would like to do further research.