The extracellular polymers (EPS) of biofilm bacteria that can cause heat and mass transfer problems in cooling water towers in the petrochemical industry were investigated. In addition, these microorganisms were screened for their ability to grow and degrade their own EPS and the EPS of other species. Twelve bacteria producing the most EPS were isolated from cooling water towers and characterized biochemically by classic and commercial systems. These were species of Pseudomonas, Burkholderia, Aeromonas, Pasteurella, Pantoea, Alcaligenes and Sphingomonas. EPS of these species were obtained by propan-2-ol precipitation and centrifugation from bacterial cultures in media enriched with glucose, sucrose or galactose. EPS yields were of 1.68-4.95 g l(-1). These EPS materials were characterized for total sugar and protein contents. Their total sugar content ranged from 24 to 56% ( g sugar g(-1) EPS), and their total protein content ranged from 10 to 28% ( g protein g(-1) EPS). The monosaccharide compositions of EPS were determined by HPLC. Generally, these compositions were enriched in galactose and glucose, with lesser amounts of mannose, rhamnose, fructose and arabinose. All bacteria were investigated in terms of EPS degradation. Eight of the bacteria were able to utilize EPS from Burkholderia cepacia, seven of the bacteria were able to utilize EPS from Pseudomonas sp. and Sphingomonas paucimobilis. The greatest viscosity reduction of B. cepacia was obtained with Pseudomonas sp. The results show that the bacteria in this study are able to degrade EPS from biofilms in cooling towers.