(GoRealNewsNow.com) – A massive clump of seaweed already impacting beaches with even more moving across the Atlantic Ocean toward Florida might carry harmful flesh-eating bacteria.
This seaweed collection, spanning 5,000 miles, is formed from sargassum seaweed, a type that has grown extensively to become the “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt.”
Research conducted at Florida Atlantic University and published in the journal Water Research indicates that this seaweed, along with the plastic debris caught within it, can become host to a species of bacteria known as Vibrio, leading to what researchers are calling a “perfect pathogen storm.”
This study showed that sargassum seaweed washed ashore could harbor high amounts of this bacteria. Additionally, these bacteria can easily stick to marine plastic debris that gets caught in large quantities within the seaweed.
Notably, a species known as Vibrio vulnificus can result in severe infections and even a condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, which has earned these bacteria the unsettling nickname “flesh-eating.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that Vibrio can infect people either by consuming infected seafood or through an open wound that comes into contact with seawater. Once infected, wounds can become necrotic, which means the flesh begins to die and decompose.
According to the CDC, about one in five people infected by this bacteria die shortly after becoming infected. However, it’s important to note that necrotizing fasciitis is rare, with only about 0.4 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. getting infected yearly.
Tracy Mincer, the lead author of the Water Research paper and assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, expressed concern, saying, “I don’t think at this point, anyone has really considered these microbes and their capability to cause infections. We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks.”
The sargassum seaweed mass continues to grow. Researchers at the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab found that in March and April, the seaweed mass was estimated to hold about 13 million tons of sargassum, a record quantity for that period.
Interestingly, the Vibrio bacteria may even contribute to the growth of the seaweed bloom. “Another interesting thing we discovered is a set of genes called ‘zot’ genes, which causes leaky gut syndrome,” said Mincer. “If a fish eats a piece of plastic and gets infected by this Vibrio, which then results in a leaky gut and diarrhea, it’s going to release waste nutrients such nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate Sargassum growth.”
In recent months, this seaweed has begun appearing on the beaches of Florida and Mexico and on islands in the Caribbean like Guadeloupe. This vast amount of seaweed has historically required significant efforts to clean up.
Clearing the beach could expose those doing the work to the Vibrio bacteria, putting them at risk of infection if they have open wounds.
Additionally, the decomposing seaweed can release hydrogen sulfide, causing respiratory issues. Kait Parker, an atmospheric scientist at the Weather Company, advises, “Anyone with compromised lung function should avoid areas with sargassum blooms—when the seaweed decomposes, it releases hydrogen sulfide [the smell of rotten eggs] and can be a respiratory irritant.”
Hydrogen sulfide is a poisonous gas that can lead to respiratory problems and irritation to the eyes. High exposure can cause acute sargassum toxicity, resulting in convulsions, dizziness, headaches, weakness, and nausea.
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