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Why Are Tarball-Filled Florida Beaches Still Open?

The BP oil disaster has finally caught up with Florida, as evidenced by this video of a child with tarballs stuck to her feet on Destin Beach. Florida has already begun to close dangerous areas—Pensacola Beach reportedly became the first oil disaster casualty yesterday when it closed due to pools of black sludge in the sands (the Pensacola News Journal reports that the beach is now open). But while the state recently implemented a swimming and fishing ban stretching through 33 miles of the Florida Panhandle, other tarball-littered beaches remain open. Why?

A report from WALB News claims that nickel and dime-sized tar balls (or "tar chips") have been washing onto Destin Beach in increasing numbers. Clean-up crews are already working to remove the oil, but it's hard to make too much of a difference when tar balls continue to wash ashore with every wave.

Destin Beach isn't alone—GovMonitor says that 61 miles of Florida beaches are currently oiled. The website reports:

Tar balls, tar patties and mousse continue to be found on Panama City Beach, Destin, Ft Walton, Pensacola Beaches and throughout Northwest Florida, with the heaviest impacts reported between Escambia and Walton Counties. According to NOAA, tar balls do not pose a health risk to the average person, but visitors are advised not to pick them up. The majority of impacts to Florida’s shoreline will likely be highly weathered, in the form of tar balls, oil sheen, tar mats or mousse – a pudding-like oil/water mixture that could be brown, rust or orange in color.

So tar balls aren't all that toxic. But the NOAA explains (PDF) that people who are especially sensitive to hydrocarbons found in crude oil can develop rashes or allergic reactions from even the briefest of contact with the gooey balls. And, according to the National Library of Medicine's Tox Town website, extended contact with crude oil can cause skin reddening, edema, and burning of the skin. That makes the tar balls dangerous enough for the Coast Guard to warn that they should only be picked up by trained personnel.

We have called Governor Charlie Crist's office repeatedly to ask about the tar ball issue, but no one will talk to us. Florida doesn't want to close its beaches prematurely, to be sure, but as we said yesterday, the state could at least consider scrapping BP-funded ads claiming that local beaches are safe—especially since in some cases tar balls are showing up en masse practically overnight (i.e. on Destin Beach). The money might be better spent on clean-up efforts.

Read more about the Gulf Oil Spill

Got information on the spill you want to share? Email us at oil@fastcompany.com. It'll go directly to the lead reporter and editor on these stories, and they'll assume all initial communication to be strictly confidential.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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