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Gulf Oil Spill Could Cause Several Health Concerns

May 7, 2010

State and federal authorities are preparing to deal with a variety of hazards to human health as the oil sticks around in the Gulf of Mexico, according to an Associated Press special report.

Threats range from runny noses and headaches to long-term risks like cancer if contaminated seafood ends up in the marketplace.  Public health agencies are monitoring air quality, drinking water supplies and seafood processing plants.

“We don’t know how long this spill will last or how much oil we’ll be dealing with, so there’s a lot of unknowns,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health director, told the Associated Press (AP). “But we’re going to make things as safe as humanly possible.”

Oil has spewed at least 200,000 gallons a day into the Gulf after an offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people.  Little oil has reached land so far, but the shifting wind speeds and direction could propel the oil slick toward populated areas.

A foul stench drifted over parts of southwestern Louisiana last week.  Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals told AP that the oil was probably the cause.

“Their eyes were burning, they felt nauseated, they were smelling it,” Levine said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started air monitoring in Gulf coastal areas and posting online hourly readings for ozone and tiny particles like soot.  Both of these can cause respiratory problems.

Crude oil emits intense organic compounds that react with nitrogen oxides in order to produce ozone.  The Coast guard is setting off fires to burn off oil on the water’s surface.  These fires will produce sooty, acrid smoke.

“We don’t know what the impacts are going to be yet,” Dave Bary, an EPA spokesman in Dallas, told AP. “We don’t know in what direction this oil will go.”

Jonathan Ward, an environmental toxicology professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said that the potential for unhealthy air quality depends on a variety of factors, particularly the speed and direction of winds that could disperse fumes and determine where they go.

Ward told AP that a lot of the oil vapor would probably not reach land because the spill was about 50 miles offshore.  However, the potential for air pollution from the slick will remain as long as the lead continues.

Public health agencies based out of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi told people near the coast that experience nausea, headaches or other smell-related ailments to stay indoors, turn on air conditioners and avoid exerting themselves outdoors.

Officials also were guarding against health problems from tainted drinking water and seafood.

Communities like New Orleans get their supplies form the Mississippi River.  Its southerly currents will help prevent oil from drifting upstream to the city intake pipes.  Guidry said that the Coast Guard is making sure that any ships with oil-coated hulls are scrubbed down before proceeding up the river.

The state health department has still ordered testing of municipal water systems near the Gulf for signs of oil.

“It’s next to impossible that a high amount would get in,” Guidry said. “Even if some got through, more than likely the treatment system would eliminate it.”

The department began taking samples at seafood processing plants this week.  Officials ordered a temporary moratorium on fishing in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida Panhandle.  However, sampling the food will help provide a control that will enable scientists to track any increase in contaminant levels once fishing is allowed to resume.

Louisiana health officials said that fish, shrimp and other Gulf delicacies on the market right now are safe.

“If we see increases in hydrocarbons or other contaminants, we’d stop the flow of seafood,” Levine said.

Gina Solomon, an associate professor at the University of California-San Francisco medical school and a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that even after the immediate crisis passes, risks could linger for year.

“Exposure to some of the chemicals in oil has been linked to cancer,” Solomon told the AP. “Those chemicals can get into sediments in the Gulf, build in the food chain and be a long-term problem in fish and shellfish.”

Guidry said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with epidemiologists in the Gulf states to develop studies of health repercussions from the oil spill.

Direct contact with oil-saturated water is another hazard, mostly for those involved in cleanup crews and volunteers involved in animal rescue operation.

When the container ship Cosco Busan released 53,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay in 2007 after hitting a bridge, officials made volunteers wear protective suits, gloves and masks.  Some beaches were closed in order to prevent danger to the public.

Solomon, who has treated patents exposed to oil fumes, said people working around the Gull spill should be equipped with respirator devices and wear heavy-duty gloves and protective clothing to guard against painful skin rashes.

“The workers absolutely need to be protected,” Solomon said.

Image Caption: NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, May 4, at 18:50 UTC, or 2:50 p.m. EDT. The Moderate Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument that flies aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this visible-light image. The bulk of the spill appears as a dull gray area southeast of the Mississippi Delta. Credit:  NASA/Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team

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