A giant stretch of seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean headed for Florida is full of bacteria and plastic, a recent study found, which could cause a “pathogen storm.”
This year’s 5,000-mile-long Sargassum seaweed bloom along the Caribbean and the Florida coast could be the largest ever recorded, NASA predicts, with much of the seaweed expected to wash ashore in June and July where it could wreak havoc.
The study, published in the journal Water Research in May, examined how the interaction between plastic marine debris and Vibrio bacteria in the massive Sargassum bloom concluded there could be “the perfect pathogen storm that has implications for both marine life and public health,” according to Florida Atlantic University.
The potentially dangerous Vibrio can stick to the plastic debris that gets caught in the mass of seaweed, the study found in seawater samples from the Caribbean and Sargasso seas.
While there are some fears about the bacteria’s “flesh-eating” qualities, experts told LiveScience this possibility was relatively uncommon.
“Clearly, the Vibrio can and does colonize both plastic and Sargassum, and it can carry genes that are potentially pathogenic,” Linda Amaral-Zettler, a marine biologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and co-author of the study, told LiveScience.
“There have been some pretty horrific infections caused by Vibrio. Their flesh-eating potential is rare, but it’s real,” she said.
Even so, ingesting the bacteria can still cause illness, including diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, and vomiting, according to LiveScience. It can even cause fish to get diarrhea, which has negative environmental impacts.
“We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks,” Tracy Mincer, the corresponding lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“In particular, caution should be exercised regarding the harvest and processing of Sargassum biomass until the risks are explored more thoroughly,” Mincer said.
Another expert told LiveScience he believed the findings were “not a huge issue” and that a lot of Vibrio are relatively harmless — but that beach-goers should still be wary of bacteria in the seaweed.
The new findings are not the only problem associated with the algae, which can also destroy coastal ecosystems, suffocate coral, harm wildlife, threaten infrastructure, and decrease air quality, as Insider previously reported.
Meanwhile, as beached sargassum dies and rots, it gives off a powerful rotten-egg smell and causes problems for tourism industries in Mexico and Florida.
“What is important is that individuals should take caution,” Jae Williams, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, told LiveScience. “They do not need to go play or recreate in the Sargassum, and if you see this Sargassum, just stay away from it.”