One more reason to hate BP’s toxic tar balls: They contain flesh-eating bacteria


Over the last three years, I’ve written a lot about one of the more insidious impacts of the massive BP oil spill of 2010: Tar balls. Despite the efforts of the oil giant, often backed by the government, to break the oil apart with its (highly poisonous, it turned out) dispersant Corexit, these gobs of crude oil congealed and often found a home buried in shallow sand. These repositories of weathered blobs of oil and toxicity are near popular beaches up and down the Gulf Coast, and still — 40 months and counting after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe — the tar balls come ashore during our frequent storms.

It was just last month that I told you about testing that Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Group, a consultant who has worked closely with me and my law firm since the start of the BP spill, had performed on a giant tar mat that had just washed ashore on Isle Grand Terre in Louisiana. These tests showed that this particular tar mat was 100 percent undiluted petroleum product and that it “contained the highest level of toxic and persistent polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that the team has ever found in Louisiana waters since the BP spill began.”

It turns out, however, that high toxicity isn’t the only reason to fear BP’s widely dispersed tar balls. An alarming new report reveals they pose another threat to human health:

Dr. Cova Arias, professor of Aquatic Microbiology at Auburn University, and two of her lab members had rather disturbing results published in the journal EcoHealth last December, 2011, on their discovery of high concentrations of vibrio vulnificus, also known as a type of flesh-eating bacteria, in tarballs.

What is surprising is that Arias’ findings haven’t received more attention from public health officials, given the implications of the research. Findings involving V. vulnificus should be a concern for public health authorities in coastal areas, given that in addition to causing severe wound infections, this bacteria is the leading cause of seafood-borne fatalities nationwide.

While many media stories have focused on either bashing beach clean-up efforts in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, or hushing up the story completely, Arias’ group has clear data from tarballs and other forms of weathered oil on beaches in Mississippi and Alabama that could be valuable information for public health and future health research efforts. Especially in the aftermath of several reported cases of flesh-eating bacterial infections contracted from beaches and water in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, and warnings from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals about flesh-eating bacteria found in Gulf waters, Arias’ findings are relevant and concerning.

The article includes an interesting Q-and-A session with Dr. Arias who notes that his findings suggest that humans — especially anyone with a skin abrasion or an open wound — should avoid contact with these tar balls as they wash ashore on Gulf beaches. He notes that it’s like a rotten crab carcass, “[b]ut while most people will avoid a rotten carcass, they may be tempted to touch a tarball.”

And here’s the thing: This is not an isolated threat, nor is it something that is diminishing as a risk with the passage of time. These tar balls continue to litter Gulf beaches, including a large find on a beach near Pensacola, Fla., just a few weeks ago that tests confirm came from the BP spill.

It’s important to know about this for two reasons. The first, obviously, is as a basic public health precaution. The second it’s just one more piece of the mosaic that demolishes BP’s current PR war, that everything in the Gulf — including its supposedly pristine beaches — is back to normal and that many citizens making legitimate damage claims are scammers and fraudsters. Who are you going to believe: The greedy oil giant BP, or the scientist with the flesh-eating bacteria-laced tar ball? 

Learn more about flesh-eating bacteria in tarballs from Scilogs:

Read my July 11 post about toxic tar balls at Isle Grand Terre in Louisiana:

Check out my July 26 blog post on tar balls coming ashore near Pensacola:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved


  • I read some time ago the Synthia, an artificial bacterium invented exonn, bp, and J. Craig Ventor had also been released on the Gulf. Anyone have any news on this?

  • I’ve recently read that this could be related to other rig pressure failures/problems, as well as sinkholes- a domino effect. any recent news on this? i’ve only seen references to it in blogs, and of course it makes perfect sense- but cannot find ‘legitimate’ media reports that link these issues. because of tourism (and fishing/economic) concerns, there’s a media blackout locally in affected areas.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This