Scientists See Serious Health Risks in Gulf Oil Spill

Repiratory, Mental Health Problems Among the Dangers From Exposure to Oil

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 16, 2010 -- The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico poses serious health risks for the people who are working to clean it up and others who venture into the coastal area, scientists say in a commentary in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Some components of oil called volatile organic compounds may cause respiratory irritation and nervous system disorders, according to the commentary by Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, and Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, both of the University of California, San Francisco.

Skin contact with oil and dispersants may cause dermatitis and increase the risk of skin infections, the authors say.

Those at risk include fishermen, cleanup workers, volunteers, and members of communities along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the authors write.

According to the commentary, seafood, including fish and shellfish, may become contaminated by hydrocarbons from the oil. Trace amounts of cadmium, mercury, and lead in oil can accumulate in the tissues of fish over time, posing a health hazard with ingestion.

Their article, posted online Aug. 16, will appear in print in the Sept. 8 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The scientists say the goal of their commentary is to inform doctors and people in coastal communities about both immediate and long-term risks posed by toxic vapors, oil slicks, tar balls, and contaminated seafood.

"The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is well known as an ecological disaster, but what is less known is the risk to human health caused by oil contamination," the authors say. "We want to reach the volunteers, clean-up workers, fishermen, medical specialists, and community members with practical information about the impact to their health from these chemicals."

"With correct information, we hope they can protect themselves and seek treatment if they don't feel well," the scientists write.

How to Avoid Medical Problems From Oil Spill

Among other things, the authors say workers may need protective equipment such as hats, gloves, boots, coveralls, safety goggles, and respirators, in some cases. They offer this advice:

  • Workers should take breaks and drink lots of fluids to prevent heat-related illnesses.
  • Workers and all others should avoid skin contact with tar or oil on beaches, in marshlands, or in the water.
  • People should not go fishing in areas known to be contaminated by oil, or where the black stuff is visible.
  • People should not eat seafood that smells strange or oily.
  • People who feel ill from smelling an odor caused by the oil should go inside and adjust air conditioning systems to get the air moving.
  • Anyone who feels ill should seek medical help to at least have symptoms assessed.

The authors say public health concerns are short term and long term and that the main worries are about air quality, skin irritation, seafood safety, and mental health.

The authors cite health data collected from previous oil spill disasters in Alaska, Spain, Korea, and Wales. These included information on respiratory problems, DNA alterations, anxiety, depression, psychological stress, neurological impairment, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to those incidents.

The authors note that more than 300 people, mostly cleanup workers, sought medical attention in the early months after the Gulf spill. Problems for which people sought help included headaches, dizziness, nausea, chest pain, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

Solomon says that officials in Louisiana are trying to track health complaints but that it's necessary to keep in mind that the 300 reported cases were from one state, and within just a few months.

The Gulf Coast region, however, is very large, with many coastal communities, so she says it's important "that we do whatever we can to help everyone impacted by this disaster."

"Clinicians should be aware of and look for evidence of toxicity from exposures to oil and to oil and related chemicals," says Janssen. "Symptomatic patients should be asked about occupation and location of residence, and the physical examination should focus on the skin, respiratory tract, and neurological system."

Impacts of Previous Spills

The authors write that after the huge oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, 1,811 claims for workers' compensation were filed by people involved in cleanup operations.

A survey of the health status of workers 14 years after the incident found "a greater prevalence of symptoms of chronic airway disease among workers with high oil exposures," the authors write. Also, they add, some people were still reporting neurological problems when that survey was done.

DNA damage was found in workers involved in an oil spill in Spain in 2002. A mental health survey of 599 local residents a year after the Exxon Valdez spill found that people who were exposed were 3.6 times more likely to have anxiety disorder, 2.9 times more likely to have PTSD, and 2.1 times more likely to score high on scales for clinical depression.


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SOURCES: News release, University of California, San Francisco.

Solomon, G. TheJournal of the American Medical Association, published online Aug. 16, 2010.

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