The Gulf Oil Spill: Who’s at Risk?
I live and work in a coastal community in southern Florida, so I wasn’t surprised when my patients started asking about the Gulf oil spill. What are the possible health consequences of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico – at the rate of perhaps 200,000 gallons per day – for weeks on end?
Like my patients, you may be concerned, too. Even if you don’t live along the Gulf coast, you may have friends and family who do. And – if nothing else – the spill may be a factor in the seafood market for many years to come.
So here’s what you need to know about your health and this tragic situation.
What You’re Facing
The type of oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico is called “medium sweet crude.”
Unlike gasoline and other “light” petroleum products, medium sweet crude doesn’t evaporate quickly. In fact, it takes a good 24 hours for about one-third of this type of oil to evaporate. And that’s under ideal conditions.
Medium sweet crude also contains sulfur compounds and other toxic chemicals. It also contains fair amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Under certain conditions, these chemicals can form ground-level ozone – a serious air pollutant.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget the chemical dispersants. They don’t begin to break down until about two weeks or so after application.
So there are any number of hazards for those working on the cleanup or living along the Gulf coast. But this spill could reach far beyond the Gulf. I’ll tell you how in a moment, but first… if you do live along the Gulf, you should take a few precautions.
Understanding Oil’s Health Risks
Skin contact with “high levels” of oil can cause anything from reddening or swelling to permanent skin damage. And inhaling or swallowing oil can cause difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea and even affect your nervous system.
Long-term exposure can damage your kidneys, liver and lungs affect your hormone levels and compromise your immune system.
So, no one should try to help clean up beaches without the proper training and protective gear. Needless to say, that goes double for anyone working on the cleanup professionally.
If you’re not part of a cleanup crew, stay away from affected beaches, tidal flats and marshlands. And – of course – stay out of the water, too.
Coastal residents may sometimes think they smell gasoline. This odor is probably a result of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the oil. When these chemicals evaporate out of the oil, they may drift ashore with the wind.
Even low levels of VOC’s can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. They can also give you a headache or upset your stomach. So if you notice the odor of gasoline, it’s best to get out of the area. If you have asthma or another breathing problem, you may be especially sensitive to VOC’s.
But most people don’t live near the Gulf coast. So what are your risks?
Trouble for the Top of the Food Chain
Contaminated seafood is the biggest concern for most people. Toxic chemicals in the oil have the potential to cause real health problems – especially in higher concentrations.
And that’s the danger of being at the top of the food chain. Oil-tainted krill or algae may be eaten by larger creatures… that are, in turn, eaten by even larger creatures, etc.
By the time they get to the top of the food chain – that’s us – those small amounts can add up to a heavy load of toxins. At high concentrations, they could make you very, very sick.
Don’t panic, though. First, tens of thousands of square miles of the Gulf’s waters have been closed to fishing. And the government has instituted an inspection system for seafood coming from the Gulf.
But oil in the tidal marshes – Nature’s fish hatchery – and oil that’s settled into the depths may show up in the food chain for years to come. For safety’s sake, the extra inspections will have to continue for some time.
Since only about 5% of our seafood comes from the Gulf, most people aren’t at much risk for exposure. Still, I’m asking where the seafood I buy comes from anyway.
Dr. Kenneth Woliner, M.D.
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