Beach Tar Balls Won't Kill You

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To hit the beach or not hit the beach, that is the question. As oil washes up on beaches in the Gulf, health officials are saying it's not much of a public health threat for beach-goers. But you shouldn't go out of your way to swim in oily water either.

If you happen to swallow a little oil-tainted water or come into contact with a tarball, there is no reason to visit the emergency room, health officials told The Associated Press. Swallowing a little oil can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but shouldn't have long-lasting effects.

With oil continuing to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, nearly seven weeks after the BP oil rig exploded off Louisiana, slick and tarballs have been spotted on beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida's panhandle.

According to the CDC, oil spill dispersants break an oil slick into small drops, rendering them less harmful if not harmless.

"For most people, brief contact with a small amount of oil spill dispersants will do no harm, the CDC says on its website.

Still, if you're concerned, the CDC recommends you see your doctor.

Longer-term contact can cause a rash and dry skin, and "dispersants can also irritate your eyes. Breathing or swallowing dispersants can also cause health effects," the CDC says.

The type of crude being spilled is less hazardous than other forms of oil, AP reports. Still, poison control centers are getting dozens of calls from beach-goers saying they believe they are sick from oil exposure.

LuAnn White, a toxicologist and director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Health, told MSNBC, there is no overt cause for concern in humans. "It looks awful, it's coating the birds, but the toxicity of those compounds is very low."

Still, the best practice may be avoidance. Alabama issued an advisory against swimming in Gulf waters, but beaches in that state and elsewhere remain open.
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