NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

What Are Tarballs?

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Tarball close up.

Close up of a tarball on Dauphin Island, Alabama, from May 2010. Credit: NOAA.

During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill last summer, “tarballs” began washing up both on Gulf shores and into the language of average Americans. But what are tarballs? Where do they come from? Are they hazardous to people’s health?

Here are tarballs, demystified:

Q. What are tarballs?

A. Tarballs are small, dark-colored pieces of oil that sometimes appear on beaches and shorelines. The weathering processes of wind and waves physically and chemically change spilled oil, evaporating the lighter components of oil and leaving the denser ones behind. This heavier oil mixes with water and forms a thick emulsion (think mayonnaise), which continues to be stretched and torn into smaller patches and pieces. These much thicker and stickier pieces of oil are tarballs.

Q. What do they look like?

A. Some tarballs can be as large as pancakes, but most are about the size of a coin. Eventually, tarballs resemble the consistency of a toasted marshmallow: hard and crusty on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.

Q. Where do they come from?

A. Tarballs originate from a variety of sources, including accidental oil spills, vessel operations, illegal discharges, and, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California, natural oil seeps. Tarballs are very persistent in the marine environment and can travel hundreds of miles.

Q. Are tarballs hazardous to people’s health?

A. While limited exposure to tarballs does not pose a serious health threat, we still recommend staying away from them. Some people who are especially sensitive to chemicals may have an allergic reaction or develop rashes even from brief contact with oil.

If contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water, baby oil, or a widely used, safe cleaning compound such as the cleaning paste sold at auto parts stores.

Q. What should I do if I find a tarball?

A. New tarballs, especially an unusual number of them, appearing on a beach may indicate an oil spill. To report a release or spill, contact the federal government’s centralized reporting center, the National Response Center (NRC), at 1-800-424-8802 (available 24 hours a day).

Find out more about tarballs from this NOAA fact sheet [PDF, leaves this blog] or by watching Oil Spill 101: Tarballs | Video from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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