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Gina Solomon’s Blog

Q&A PART 1: Gulf Coast Oil Spill and Your Health – the Basics

Gina Solomon

Posted May 4, 2010

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As we’re waiting for the full scale of environmental, economic and wildlife impacts from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to unfold, there’s a lot of speculation and unanswered questions going around about what this means for the health of people living and working in the region. 

To help answer these questions, I’ve put together a three-part Q&A on what this means for human health. I’ll post the 3 parts of this Q&A over the course of the week, and in this first post I’ll answer some of the basic background health questions I’m hearing about the spill below. In later posts I’ll look at who’s at risk, and health tips for people working on the clean-up – stay tuned.


What’s actually in oil that could be hazardous to health?

Oil contains a mixture of chemicals. The main ingredients are various hydrocarbons, some of which can cause cancer (eg. the PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons); other hydrocarbons can cause skin and airway irritation. There are also certain volatile hydrocarbons called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which can cause cancer and neurologic and reproductive harm. Oil also contains traces of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead.


How can these chemicals get into our bodies?

VOCs and some of the other hydrocarbons can be inhaled, causing lung problems and other health effects. Skin contact causes irritation and rashes. The oil will contaminate fish and shellfish, causing health risks from eating these foods that could persist for years.


What are the acute health effects from exposure to the oil?

Inhalation of oil vapors or aerosolized particles (from wind-blown waves), can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the eyes and throat, and difficulty breathing.

People with asthma or other lung diseases could have serious exacerbations. High-dose inhalation (if people are very close to the vapors) may cause a chemical pneumonia known as “hydrocarbon pneumonia”, which can require hospital care. Direct skin contact can cause various kinds of rashes, including generalized skin irritation, or something known as “folliculitis” from oil-clogged skin pores.


What about if they’re burning the oil offshore?

Burning will release particulate matter, which is harmful to the lungs. To check on particulate matter levels in your area, check out the EPA AirNow website at: If the air is noticeably smoky, or if the levels of particulate matter are high on the EPA website, avoid any strenuous activities outdoors. For people with heart or lung disease, children, or the elderly: consider staying indoors in an air-conditioned room, and change the air-conditioner filter to make sure it is maximally effective.


How does this situation affect the shrimping/fishing industry in terms of the quality of our food?

Apart from the economic disaster to the industry, this spill poses a long-term health concern for the safety of the fish and shellfish. Contaminants in oil can persist for years and accumulate in the food chain, causing elevated cancer risks or neurological risks from exposure to heavy metals such as mercury.


Are there any health concerns associated with dispersants?

Dispersants are somewhat volatile and some will enter the air. Therefore it is really critical for clean-up workers and volunteers to wear personal protection equipment at all times when either applying the dispersant or working near where it has been applied. By the time the dispersants reach shore, they will probably be highly diluted and won’t pose a threat for communities, but this is something we’ll keep an eye on if they start using dispersants close to populations.

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David PettitMay 4 2010 08:56 PM

In two oil spill cases I've worked on, workers cleaning oil off beaches have worn full hazmat suits. This is why.

Arthur MolanMay 7 2010 12:44 AM

Having worked in the petrochemical industry for over a decade I can attest to the hazards associated with and the appropriate safety precautions for crude oil and its derivatives.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to ask as many questions as it takes until YOU are satisfied and do not accept anyone's word under any circumstances.

Ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for every hazard you are likely to face.

Here's a typical MSDS for a chemical dispersant:

The desire to help in the face of overwhelming tragedy is what makes us human, the ability to stay informed and aware of the hazards of working in dangerous situations, even ones that don't appear so, is what keeps us alive.

Phillip ClarkeMay 14 2010 07:29 PM

Remember acid rain? What effect will the crude oil vapors (or the oil dispersants) evaporating cause to rain water falling back to the ground? Is the rain water contaminated? And if so, how will this affect our crops, animals and/or skin exposed to rain water?

jason wilsonMay 20 2010 10:47 PM

Burning all that oil will cause acid rain for fl and I know people with assmia that are all ready have problems wonder if it is from burn hell even I have been hacking stuff up myself gov. Dose seem to care they are killing us all for money

artsmithMay 27 2010 10:46 AM

I tried downloading the MSDS from your page and it came up as not found and referred to the response site, which does not have the MSDS info

rosemarie wheelerJun 4 2010 05:30 PM

In reply to artsmith: to get the MSDS, google MSDS 9500 or 9527. Both are very hazardous, require protective clothing, etc.
A quote from the NY Times on 5/13: "EPA has not taken a stance on whether one dispersant should be used over another, leaving that up to BP." [OMG!] Of the 18 dispersants that are EPA approved, 12 were found to be more effective than Corexit on the type of oil spilled In the Gulf; 2 of the 12 were found to be 100% effective on Gulf crude and as regards toxicity they were either comparable to Corexit or 10-20 times less (thisfrom the EPA). Again from the NY Times--Corexit was more available in large quantities & because the mfg (Nalco) dominates the dispersant market with strong ties to industries.

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