Deadly Bacteria Found In Gulf Coast Tar Balls

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Since the very first tar balls began rolling onshore along the Gulf of Mexico following 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion and subsequent underwater oil geyser, the oil industry told us to relax because those tar balls were completely harmless. But as we approach the two year anniversary of the disaster, new studies have confirmed that the tar balls we’re seeing along our beaches contain bacteria that are capable of killing human beings.

The new study, conducted by scientists at Auburn University, confirmed the presence of a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. According to researchers, this is the same bacteria that is responsible for causing illness and death from eating bad oysters. The tar balls contained concentrations of this bacteria more than 100 times greater than the surrounding water. The Centers for Disease Control says the following regarding Vibrio vulnificus:

Wound infections may start as redness and swelling at the site of the wound that then can progress to affect the whole body. V. vulnificus typically causes a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blood-tinged blistering skin lesions (hemorrhagic bullae). Overall, V. vulnificus infections are fatal about 40% of the time. Wound infections with V. vulnificus are fatal about 20% of the time, and aggressive surgical treatment can prevent death.

Persons who have immunocompromising conditions and especially persons with chronic liver disease are particularly at risk for V. vulnificus infection when they eat raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico, or if they bathe a cut or scrape in marine waters. About three-quarters of patients with V. vulnificus infections have known underlying hepatic disease or other immunocompromising illness. Otherwise healthy persons are at much lower risk of V. vulnificus infection.

It is important to remember that this isn’t a fleeting threat to those of us who live, work, and play along the Gulf Coast. National Geographic recently pointed out that tarballs are continuously washing up along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that the threat of bacterial infection is not only real, but it is persistent. And with Spring Break season in high gear, beaches along the Gulf Coast are currently inundated with out of state families playing and relaxing on top of these toxic bacteria balls.

And again, we’ve been reassured time and time again from the oil industry, particularly BP, that these tar balls do not pose a single threat to human health.

A recent out of court settlement between the victims of the oil spill and BP provides for medical monitoring – meaning that the company will set aside money to pay for future medical expenses related to their disaster – which is somewhat reassuring for those who are walking on bacteria balls daily. But as temperatures rise along the Gulf Coast, more and more families and children are heading to the beach, not knowing of the toxic threat that is lurking beneath their feet.

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Sorry, but this is not a meaningful health threat.  For the overwhelming majority of people this is not going to be a pathogenic bug.  Even those who would be susceptible to it, people that are on immunosupressants etc., would have to somehow either ingest the tarballs or rub them in a cut.

From the article:

In fact, they discovered that the balls had up to 100 times more of that particular bacteria than the water they floated in and 10 times more than the sand they rested on.

At this point you’ve totally lost any concern from me about the health scare.  10x more bacteria than the sand?  So what?   A one log difference in bacterial counts is not going to somehow make these things more pathogenic than the sand they’re sitting on! 

I’ve seen these infections, even seen one kill a patient with liver disease that cut his toe on a seashell on a beach (many years ago before deepwater horizon).  It’s a bad bug for the wrong person, no doubt.  But this level of contamination is barely above the background of the sand.  There’s no way that’s going to result in higher pathogenesis, especially when it’s unlikely that susceptible people people are going to be using tarballs as exfoliants or garnish on their salads.  I’d worry about 100x fewer vibrio on a piece of broken glass than 1000x more on a ball of tar. 

Lots of common bacteria cause far more disease in far more people than vibrio.  Staph for instance, a ubiquitous bacteria that’s on all of us and probably most the surfaces in our house, can kill these same susceptible individuals.  Acinetobacter, also everywhere, can kill susceptible individuals.  The mere possibility of pathogenesis does not necessarily mean increased bacterial counts represent a meaningful health risk.

You guys should take this down.  Stick to climate, leave medicine to the docs, and don’t take medical advice from PhDs.