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Gulf oil spill: Air pollution a new health concern

June 28, 2010 |  3:49 pm

Dispersant plane
Public outrage over the BP oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico has focused on water pollution. But an air pollution health threat may also be serious, according to UCI researchers.

A team of UCI scientists, including Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland and Chemistry department Chairman Donald Blake, has detected concentrations of toxic chemicals such as alkyl nitrates, methane, hexane and butane compounds that can irritate or burn skin and eyes or cause dizziness, according to studies.

So far, air samples from about 400 canisters the group collected on a recent trip to the oil spill do not show levels above government safety thresholds. But the concentrations are higher than those found over heavily polluted urban areas, such as Los Angeles, Mexico City or Oklahoma oil tank farms.

The blown-out well is 50 miles off Louisiana and is gushing oil into the gulf at a rate between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day. Several cleanup workers have been hospitalized with respiratory complaints.

UCI researchers say it is unclear whether the noxious gases in the air around the spill are the result of oil, of chemical dispersants or of other sources. More funding and government coordination are needed, they said.

The scientists have submitted their findings to the Environmental Protection Agency and to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA followed up with a monitoring flight, but the results have not yet been released.

The UCI team is collecting more samples with an eye toward publishing a peer-reviewed paper in the near future.

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: A dispersant-carrying plane passes over an oil skimmer as it cleans oil from the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit:Patrick Semansky/Associated Press