The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has directed Urbanco to completely remove a large number of tarballs that have washed ashore at Hulhumalé, the agency said on Friday.

Many have been sharing photos of the tarballs washing up on the beach on social media with significant concerns that the tarballs may cause added environmental damage if carried back to sea.

Ibrahim Naeem, the Director General of the EPA, told local media that the agency had become aware of the issue and had instructed Urbanco to remove the tarballs.

“We have received the photos. That’s why Urbanco has been directed to remove them immediately,” he said.

Naeem said the tarballs, even if carried back into the sea, would not constitute an oil spill, explaining that these contaminants are formed when crude oils, introduced to seawater, are subsequently exposed to sunlight, eventually transforming into tarballs. When exposed to sunlight, the oils emulsify into a much thicker and stickier substance, which is then stretched and torn into smaller pieces by the winds and waves, forming tarballs, he said. According to Naeem, such tarballs occasionally wash up on the beach.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Maldives and has been documented in different countries around the world. Studies have been conducted in the Maldives on the phenomenon as well, Naeem confirmed.

While a tarball in itself poses little danger to humans, those with sensitive skin are more likely to experience allergies in the form of itchiness or redness when exposed. If exposed, it is advisable to avoid using solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, or similar products on the skin. Washing the area with soap and water or baby oil may relieve symptoms and medical attention should be sought should symptoms persist.