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Oil spill’s human health impacts might extend into the future

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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volunteer cleans up oil spill in the gulf, might have health risks laterScientists are still assessing the ecological damage wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. Other researchers, however, are looking at subtler signs of the disaster’s potential impacts on human health.

More than 300 people had come forward with spill-related symptoms in the few months after the rig exploded. Of those, some three quarters were people directly involved in the clean-up effort, noted the authors of a new commentary piece set for publication September 8 in JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association.

Some of the common complaints have included chest pain, coughing, dizziness, headaches, respiratory distress and vomiting. "These symptoms are typical of acute exposure to hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide," wrote the piece’s authors, Gina Solomon and Sarah Janssen, both of the Department of Medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and National Resources Defense Council. "But it is difficult to clinically distinguish toxic symptoms from other common illnesses," they explained. 

Crude oil is made up of thousands of chemical compounds. Some of the lighter ones, including benzene and toluene, are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and tend to evaporate soon after they reach the water’s surface. These chemicals can cause respiratory problems as well as temporary central nervous system troubles. And some VOCs have been linked to cancers at high exposure levels.

When oil or dispersants come into contact with skin, they can also cause dermatitis and other skin infections.

Although few previous oil spills have reached the proportions of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, scientists have been combing the literature for clues about long- and short-term health impacts. Some 270 people who worked on clean-up of the Exxon Valdez spill filed claims for respiratory problems, and follow-up surveys have found that those who had worked most closely with the spilled oil had "a greater prevalence of symptoms of chronic airway disease," Solomon and Janssen noted.

The damage could, however, run deeper than skin irritation and breathing difficulties. A study of clean-up workers from the 2002 Prestige oil tanker spill off the coasts of France and Spain found increased levels of DNA damage. The greatest damage, the researchers found, was found in workers who had not worn protective masks, though elevated levels of damage seemed to dissipate over time.

The dangers also seem to extend beyond those working directly on the clean-up efforts, noted the authors of a June 2010 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the health impacts of the oil spill. Those closest to the well are likely to suffer the greatest harm, the IOM report noted, in large part because they will be exposed to the most VOCs evaporating from the light oil that floats to the ocean surface—as well as any compounds from chemical dispersants being used. Those working farther from the source, such as volunteers cleaning animals and shoreline are more likely to come into contact with so-called weathered oil, which clumps up and can coat beaches and animals, and can irritate the skin.

"Residents in the affected communities are also at risk for dermal exposure to either crude oil in the water or weathered oil on the beach; inhalational exposure to chemicals or compounds, such as those carried ashore by prevailing winds; or ingestion by eating potentially contaminated seafood, drinking contaminated water, or other forms of ingestion," the June report authors noted.

Many consumers—and scientists—are also concerned about the safety of seafood caught in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been a substantial source of U.S. fish and mollusks. Health experts worry about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals from the oil, which can accumulate in the food chain and be ingested in high levels in larger marine animals. Even so, the smaller fare might not be safer. "I probably would put oysters at the top of the concern list," George Crozier, director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab, told The Associated Press Monday.

And not all of the harm is likely to be physical. Previous oil spills have prompted higher rates of psychological ailments in workers and volunteers. Some six years after the Exxon Valdez, people exposed to the spill still had higher rates of depression as well as anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorders.

And the size and timing of the Gulf’s disaster is likely to exacerbate the detrimental effects. "The impact of frequent natural and human-caused disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and now the oil spill, further strains populations that are already experiencing a great deal of stress," the IOM report noted. "The long-term psychological and social impacts may be as significant as the physical impacts of the Gulf oil spill."

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Patrick Kelley





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  1. 1. gunslingor 4:16 pm 08/16/2010

    FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY!!!

    Some ONE IS FINALLY LOOKING at long term and cumulative effects! Finally! Of course, they will only act on the acute affects since acute affects are a lot easilier to prove in court. What do they care if you die 20 years earlier or get cancer in a few years, good luck proving it in court sucker!

    Now just modify contaminent standards back the way they were 30 years ago (to levels 10% of what they are today) and you’ll be able to tell people truthfully that the Gulf seafood is either safe or unsafe. The only problem, if you do this, all seafood will be unsafe to eat; this is why they raised the standards in the first place.

    I don’t eat seafood anymore… with the Guld spill and the two recent china spills, plus the spill in the great barrier reaf, plus the mercury accumulating in animals continuously… it really isn’t safe. They just don’t make food like they used to, or I guess they do, we just fowl it before we consume it.

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  2. 2. sparcboy 7:34 am 08/17/2010

    From the article: "Some of the common complaints have included chest pain, coughing, dizziness, headaches, respiratory distress and vomiting."

    These are also symptoms of people being out in very hot and humid conditions where the heat index can reach 100 degrees.

    "I probably would put oysters at the top of the concern list,"
    So much pollution from farm and industrial run off comes down the Mississippi every year that it causes a larger environmental impact than the BP oil spill. And not only the Mississippi, but many rivers along the Gulf coast dump this pollution into the Gulf non-stop. Anyone who is, or has been eating oysters from the Gulf if taking their life into their own hands, and it has nothing to do with the BP oil spill.

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  3. 3. gunslingor 7:45 am 08/17/2010

    sparcboy,

    For the last 70+ years, anyone eating filter feeders out of any water source, not just the gulf, is taking their life into their own hands.

    But don’t downplay the spill. Yes, all the pollution, industrial run off, acid/mercury ran, etc etc into the gulf for a give year (+ all the minor spills, 4,000 last year, that occur in the gulf) outsurpasses the pollution from this spill. But this thing was highly localized and then spread throughout the entire gulf. The effects of this will be felt for decades if not centuries or mellenia, the course of evolution itself has been greatly effected by this disaster (and the daily pollution on top of that). Oh well, it was a nice planet while it lasted, so much for the intelligence of man, little hope is left in me.

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  4. 4. rabinkapur 10:48 pm 08/24/2010

    Nice word,have to change so much from us to save nature.

    Link to this
  5. 5. rabinkapur 10:51 pm 08/24/2010

    Nice word,have to change so much from us to save nature.
    By
    <a href="http://www.norfolkholidayguide.com">Rabin</a&gt;

    Link to this
  6. 6. rabinkapur 10:52 pm 08/24/2010

    http://www.norfolkholidayguide.com

    Link to this
  7. 7. CourtneyF01 5:45 pm 09/16/2010

    The oil spill is a tremendous disaster however i feel as if bp has been asking for this. This will take years if not decades to clean if it ever stops. I feel as if the human raise is putting two things in danger one including the health and well being of each other due to the fact that the oil is toxic and that the oil gets on fish, which us humans eat. The other being that because of loss of oil the price for gas has been going through the roof lately which will cause many issues to our country because it is adding to our mound of debt that we have yet to pay off. The facts state that what we see on the surface of our use to be clear and beautiful oceans is not nearly as terrifying as the world below the surface. Beyond the many sea creatures that have already been effected by this bp disaster birds (pelicans) are being lathered in oil preventing them from flying which in some cases if not treated emediatly can be fatel.
    This whole thing started when the bp by passed many red flags in their what they thought was a "flawless" plan to do underwater drilling. Now not only has this disaster not been resolved but bp is also already planning to do another underwater drilling seight. Just a tip for bp: money cant fix everything and what you have started you hav to finish before you start again. Bp states that they have had the best and most intelligent people in the world look at this very peculiar situation and not only have they not come up with squat but they may hav brought less faith to the people praying for this nightmare to end. I as a human being feel as that bp needs to stepp up their game as a company and put not just money into the oil spill but put their heart and soul into this situation because as it SHOULD be they should no longer have a the right to sell their gas in the USA and their company should loose all rights to drill in the coast and or any where els in the world. This is my say in the situation and I feel that everyone should help in this now global disaster in one way or another.
    -Courtney

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  8. 8. ekalogic 3:55 pm 09/9/2011

    Take a look at what one Louisiana native is doing to help cleanup the environment. Its called EKA(Environmentally Kind Alternative), and it looks promising. http://www.ekalogic.com

    Link to this

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