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Gulf oil spill: human health effects debated

There is broad disagreement on the potential health hazards of the spilled oil polluting the Gulf of Mexico and washing up onto its shores. Some scientists predict medical problems among workers involved in the cleanup and even the general public. Others expect safety precautions ordered by the federal government to protect cleanup workers and the public from harm.

One thing seems likely, though: The long-term health effects of this disaster probably will be monitored in more detail than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and other previous spills, experts said Friday.

Concerns over the health effects of the spill grew this week as more workers and residents of the coastal areas reported symptoms such as headaches and problems breathing. So far, about 60 exposure-related complaints have been filed with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

In one of the more publicized incidents, late last week seven workers performing skimming operations from boats were taken to hospitals due to sudden illness. An investigation of that situation is underway, but it appears the workers’ symptoms may have resulted from exposure to a cleaning substance, said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“What OSHA is doing, along with other agencies, is monitoring exposures on the beaches and on the boats to determine what sort of protection workers should be receiving,” Michaels said. “At this point we see no evidence of exposure that would require respirators.”

A mobile public health clinic opened Tuesday in the town of Venice to serve those cleanup workers complaining of sickness. The clinic has not yet been overrun, said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who helped establish the facility. “The volume of oil that has come in has not been enough to cause problems,” he said.

The clinic will be available for any health need of the workers, not just toxic exposures, Melancon added, but it also will be useful as a way to monitor workers’ reactions to the oil. “If we have stations to clean the birds, we ought to have stations to help humans,” he said.

There certainly is potential for hazard. Crude oil contains a brew of substances dangerous to human health, including chemicals such as benzene that are known to cause cancer in humans, and others that are toxic to the brain and central nervous system, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

“There is overwhelming evidence that many of the compounds found in crude oil are dangerous,” said James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va. “It will be important to have a regional and national public health effort to assess the health impact.”

A lot of the hazard will depend on the degree of exposure — placing cleanup workers, not surprisingly, at the highest risk. Brief contact with crude oil is not considered harmful, but sustained exposure or high enough doses of the chemicals can sicken people rapidly, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant medical director for the California Poison Control System.

“If you breathe them or ingest them or absorb them through skin they can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, even changes in mental status,” Rangan said. “The severity depends on how much you are exposed to. The longer you out there and being exposed, the higher the risk.”

Although the flu-like symptoms reported by some of the cleanup workers in the Gulf in recent days have been dismissed by some Gulf area authorities as due to heat, fatigue or food poisoning, they are similar to what would be expected from crude oil toxicity, Rangan added.

“If these workers are complaining of these symptoms, they shouldn’t be dismissed,” he said. “You should pretty much presume these symptoms are from the crude oil before assuming otherwise.”

The timing of exposure can make a big difference to the health risk, said LuAnn White, a toxicologist and director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health in New Orleans.

“Oil changes over time,” she said. “When it’s first released, it comes up and sits on the water. Volatile compounds in the oil, such as those that would go into gasoline or solvents — the most toxic components — evaporate on top of the water.”

The oil that is drifting to beaches and wetlands, referred to as “weathered oil,” has lost most of the volatile components and therefore is not as toxic. The same goes for the tar balls — weathered oil that has been shaped by wind and waves into clumps.

“The workers on the beach picking up the tar balls and gooey stuff should wear gloves and boots and not let it come into contact with the skin. But they don’t need a respirator, based on what compounds are there,” White said.

Chemical dispersants, which are being used on a limited basis by BP, are of less concern than oil exposure, she said, because dispersants tend to keep the oil underwater and offshore. “The one being used has a short half-life and breaks down rapidly in the environment into harmless products. That happens in a matter of days,” she said.

One of the trickiest issues in assessing probable health effects is the poor record from prior spills.
A 2007 study following cleanup workers more than one year after a 2002 oil tanker spill off the coast of Galicia, Spain, showed that some workers experienced respiratory symptoms one to two years after exposure.

“Several people who worked on the Valdez spill complained of health problems,” added Dr. Stephen Cunnion, medical director for the Center for Health Policy and Preparedness at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Skin and respiratory problems were the most common complaint from workers there, but little is known about longer-term effects. “There was no study,” Cunnion said. “Not following up on people in these situations has always been a problem.”

The Valdez spill and Gulf disaster are different, in any case, due to factors such as water temperature, weather conditions and density of human population along the coast — making them difficult to compare, experts said.

This time, several agencies, including Gulf state public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Assn. of Poison Centers have said they will conduct long-term surveillance on health issues related to the spill, according spokesmen for these groups.

Predictions about what they will find vary depending on who you speak with. “This crisis will be an environmental crisis, not a public health crisis,” White said.

“This is a slowly evolving process,” Giordano said. “You may not see symptoms for weeks to months following exposures. It’s very insidious.”

-- Shari Roan

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i was working on the spill in grand isle and on aug.4th i was splashed in my face with the oily water from the absorbent boom that was up on the marsh since this began..on aug 5th i woke up and my vision was blurry. went to hospital on aug 7th .been through all the tests you can imagine and my bloodwork on several tests showed a high white cell count which means i had an infection. i went blind in my right eye in about 7 left eye is also affected to where i now need glasses..dont tell me it was safe out there and its non toxic when we had to wear tyvek suits and rubber gloves,but where was the face protection..i am still not getting workers comp. because they said it was a coincidence.HA

This is what the ancients were eluding to. At the rate that the oil is escaping by 12-21-2010 all of the worlds water supply will be contminated. The contaminated rain will destroy the crops and the extiction of life as we know it will be altered beyond recognition. The devastation should start with the first rain falls in the SE states and move around the world with each rain fall.

I have been to Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area for several days. There is a strong smell of petroleum products in the air. The air was heavy and there seemed to breeze to carry it away. I do not think that it is safe to eat any seafood, drink local water or breath the air down there.I was not in the middle of the clean-up. I was only visiting. I had several seafood meals, and, drank water from a faucet, not to mention the fact that I had slight exposure to the petroleum-filled air. I have a terrible taste in my mouth .
Does anyone have any comments?

With the potential for long term effects, there is also the potential that those exposed to the worst of the oil spill will face these health effects in years to come when media attention is no longer interested in the spill. At that time, the monitoring that has started now will be crucial to ensure that these individuals do not face the costs of health care without assistance.

The crude oil is toxic, and anyone who cleans the oily Gulf beaches needs to know the danger. Don't become BP's Collateral Damaged, like Exxon did in 1989.

Article from Las Vegas Review Journal:

My name is Merle Savage, a female general foreman during the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS) beach cleanup in 1989, which turned into 21 years of extensive health deterioration for me, and many other workers. I am one of the 11,000+ cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (EVOS), who is suffering from health issues from that toxic cleanup, without compensation from Exxon.

Dr. Riki Ott visited me in 2007 to explain about the toxic spraying on the beaches. She also informed me that Exxon's medical records and the reports that surfaced in litigation by sick workers in 1994, had been sealed from the public, making it impossible to hold Exxon responsible for their actions.

Exxon developed the toxic spraying; OSHA, the Coast Guard, and the state of Alaska authorized the procedure; VECO and other Exxon contractors implemented it. Beach crews breathed in crude oil that splashed off the rocks and into the air -- the toxic exposure turned into chronic breathing conditions and central nervous system problems, neurological impairment, chronic respiratory disease, leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, liver damage, and blood disease.

My web site is devoted to searching for EVOS cleanup workers who were exposed to the toxic spraying, and are suffering from the same illnesses that I have. There is an on going Longshoreman’s claim for workers with medical problems from the oil cleanup. Our summer employment turned into a death sentence for many -- and a life of unending medical conditions for the rest of Exxon’s Collateral Damaged.


How likely are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in crude oil to cause cancer?

The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that some PAHs may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens.

Some people who have breathed or touched mixtures of PAHs and other chemicals for long periods of time have developed cancer. Some PAHs have caused cancer in laboratory animals when they breathed air containing them (lung cancer), ingested them in food (stomach cancer), or had them applied to their skin (skin cancer).

Your incident command will pass out the MSDS ,Material Safety Data Sheet, in affected areas .

How do we know ?

On April 27, 2003, eight years ago the Bouchard Barge B-120 hit an obstacle in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts creating a 12-foot rupture in its hull and discharging an estimated 100,000 gallons of No. 6 oil. The oil is known to have affected an estimated 90 miles of shoreline, killing 450 numerous bird species the day it happen

Gratuitous environmental regulations have driven oil production into perilous deep waters.It is clear that partisan ideologies and cultish environmentalism have replaced prudent science and economic realities in climate policy. What is also clear is that environmentalism no longer offers any product or service in support of our future security and prosperity. Militant environmentalism and green-obsessed bureaucrats have become an “axis of antagonism” that we can no longer afford.

The residents of the Gulf should review recent Massachusetts law news.

A jury through an environmental class action suit has recently awarded Massachusetts property owners damages eight years after the oil spill ravaged Buzzards Bay, polluting residential beaches, devastating ecosystems and hurting local property values, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

On April 27, 2003, eight years ago the Bouchard Barge B-120 hit an obstacle in Buzzards Bay, creating a 12-foot rupture in its hull and discharging an estimated 100,000 gallons of No. 6 oil. The oil is known to have affected an estimated 90 miles of shoreline, killed 450 numerous bird species, and recreational use of the bay, such as shell fishing and boating.

The Gulf oil spill is turning into an environmental disaster of epic proportions. Checkout for trivia behind other famous oil spills at

how about this to think about:
if BP had only REALLY tried to STOP the leak this spill would have been
over in a week top. Of course trying to control it instead so not to kill
the field is much more complicated.
But they don't care about the ecological impact at large.
They only care about making sure they will be able to exploit that well
again someday.


People blame Obama and some people blame BP. The fact is that the blame for this
oil spill rest squarely on the shoulders of the enviroMENTAL wackos and the
politicians they support. The ones that pass laws preventing drilling in the USA.
If it were not for them forcing the oil companies through tighter and tighter
regulations to drill off shore the oil companies would be drilling on dry ground.
Not one mile under the sea. If this spill had occurred in ANWAR the leak would
have been stopped and the clean up complete by now. So when you see those dying
sea birds and the dead endangered sea turtles and those out if work fishermen
do not blame BP or the oil companies. Point the finger of blame at the people that
are fully responsible. The environmental wackos and the scumbag politicians they elected.


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