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Gulf oil spill: scientists assess health effects

August 17, 2010 |  6:24 pm

Shrimp Days after a vacationing President Obama swam in gulf waters and tasted fish caught off the coast of Florida, scientists with the Natural Resources Defense Council said the gulf oil spill probably still will have far-reaching health effects on both seafood and people.

The commentary, published online Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., examined the potential effects of the oil spill on workers, residents and seafood coming out of the Gulf of Mexico. The  report followed seafood testing done by the Food and Drug Administration indicating that levels of the heavier toxic substances in oil that can kill marine life were well below federally set limits.

The paper was written by Dr. Gina Solomon, director of UC San Francisco's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program and a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Dr. Sarah Janssen, also with UCSF and a senior scientist with the NRDC. They pointed to the known effects of crude oil's lighter chemicals, which are released into the air once the oil reaches the ocean surface. Such "volatile aromatic hydrocarbons" can cause breathing problems as well as harm to the central nervous system. Benzene exposure has been linked to leukemia, and toluene to birth defects, Solomon said in a phone interview.

In Louisiana, Solomon added, hundreds of cleanup workers reported headaches, vomiting, trouble breathing and chest pain -- all possible symptoms of exposure to the airborne chemicals. The dispersants used to clear oil from the water's surface have been known to cause dermatitis and skin infections, she added.

The heavier parts of crude that don't make it into the atmosphere, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can poison fish and shellfish, Solomon said, especially the latter. Invertebrates such as oysters, shrimp and crabs have far more trouble than vertebrate animals in purging the chemicals from their systems.

Solomon also pointed to studies that documented mental health effects, such as high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, in the wake of oil spills. (On Monday, BP announced $52 million in grants to five gulf states for mental health services.)

"The biggest of these issues depends on who you are talking to, and when," Solomon said. "Last month was air quality, this month was seafood safety -- maybe next month will be mental health."

To assess the potential health fallout, Solomon drew on data from previous oil spills. She pointed, for example, to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, in which 15% of the filed 1,811 workers' compensation claims were for respiratory problems.

But, the scientists wrote in the JAMA paper, "no information is available in the peer-reviewed literature about longer-term health effects of [the Exxon Valdez] spill."

And without copious amounts of study from past spills, Solomon said, it's difficult to advise people about whether they should eat shrimp, find other work, or even leave town. 

"People are looking for clear guides," Solomon said, "and the guide right now is in shades of gray, not black and white."

-- Amina Khan

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke examines Gulf Coast shrimp in August during a tour of the Lafitte Frozen Seafood Corp. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images

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