skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Gina Solomon’s Blog

The Gulf Oil Spill: Human Health is Affected Too

Gina Solomon

Posted May 1, 2010

, , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Oil spills destroy ecosystems and kill wildlife, but people's health is directly affected too. As the situation in the Gulf Coast unfolds, the local communities and workers must be protected.

Oil is semi-volatile, which means that it can evaporate into the air and create a heavy vapor that stays near the ground - in the human breathing zone. When winds whip up oily sea water, the spray contains tiny droplets - basically a fume - of oil, which are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. We know that's happening in the Gulf Coast, because people are reporting a heavy oily smell in the air. Already my colleagues in Louisiana are reporting that people in the coastal community of Venice, Louisiana are suffering from nausea, vomiting, headaches, and difficulty breathing. Knowing the health effects of oil, I'm not surprised.

Oil contains petroleum hydrocarbons, which are toxic and irritating to the skin and airways. It also contains volatile chemicals, called VOCs, which can cause acute health effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea. Over the long term, many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, so there are lots of reasons to worry about inhaling them.

Some people are at especially high risk:

Pregnant women - VOCs have been associated with miscarriage, so I would advise pregnant women to leave the area near the spill if they can.

People with respiratory disease cannot afford the additional lung damage from these chemicals, and should evacuate the area if possible.

The EPA is doing air monitoring and posting it on their website, and I will be carefully following the levels of contaminants in the air. I'm disappointed not to see hourly air quality updates, since the winds are dying down and shifting, so rapid hourly reporting would help health workers and local residents respond to the changing conditions.

I'm also worried about the clean-up workers. BP has hired local fishermen to help with the clean-up effort. It's great to provide employment and to involve them in the effort to save the Gulf Coast, but I'm worried. The fisherman have not been fully trained on how to work safely with hazardous materials. Worse still, reports from our Gulf Coast partners indicate that they may not be getting adequate protective equipment. The clean up workers need respirators with vapor cartridges (and need to be checked for adequate fit). They need heavy impermeable gloves, and protection on their arms. Remember, these chemicals can damage the skin and even be absorbed through the skin. This clean-up needs to be done quickly, but it also needs to be done safely. Eleven workers are already dead from the explosion; let's make sure worker and community health is protected from now on.


Share | | |


Don GarrisonMay 1 2010 04:35 PM

I and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of other Americans live on the Gulf Coast. What are we all to do ? Leave ? While that might be the most prudent action to take in terms of human health it is impractical for a huge variety of reasons - not the least of which is economic. The Administration and the Federal government's response has been to blame BP and name them the "responsible party". While that may be true it is accomplishing nothing. This spill is of truly EPIC proportions - if you do not agree continue to watch it grow in the weeks or months ahead. There has been nothing like it in US history in terms of it potential environmental impact - yet VERY few in the media or government seem to be grasping that fact on May 1, 2010. This will be perhaps the greatest environmental holocaust in US history or worse. This spill will make the Exxon Valdez look like an ice cream social. The impact on human health will be significant on the Gulf.

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 1 2010 05:22 PM

Thanks for this comment. I agree that this is an environmental and economic disaster of epic proportions, and am frightened to watch it unfold.

But I don't think people on the Gulf Coast need to leave. I'm recommending that pregnant women and those with significant respiratory problems avoid the areas that are nearest the water where the oil is coming ashore. Currently, that's the shoreline near Venice, Lousiana, although I realize that will spread fast.

One of our partner groups in the Gulf Coast is the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). They are posting frequent updates so check out their website: Also, support them if you can - their staff is working 20 hour days to help the workers and communities respond to the spill.

Courtney WatsonMay 1 2010 05:52 PM

Gina, Thank you for this article. This is just the information I've been looking for. I live approx 2 miles from Mobile Bay. I know that the government knows the health risks this spill is going to pose to residents of the coast. My fear is the people will not be informed, nor given the resources needed to protect their health. Also, there's been a new report predicting the possibility of a blowout of the well head itself. I'm watching my two little girls playing right now and wondering what steps I need to take to protect them. The people need to know what they are in for. Why is this not being reported on? What an ironic scenario, to think that the fisherman employed by BP to help with the spill, will probably be exposed to these cancer causing VOCs and die before they ever see any settlement money. What do we do, Gina?

Don GarrisonMay 1 2010 07:55 PM

I never thought you were advocating that anyone leave. I live 60 yards from the surf in Bay County FL. When I read : ”When winds whip up oily sea water, the spray contains tiny droplets - basically a fume - of oil, which are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. We know that's happening in the Gulf Coast, because people are reporting a heavy oily smell in the air.”” AND “”Oil contains petroleum hydrocarbons, which are toxic and irritating to the skin and airways. It also contains volatile chemicals, called VOCs, which can cause acute health effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea. Over the long term, many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, so there are lots of reasons to worry about inhaling them.””
I read that my health as well as that of my healthy wife and 2 kids will be negatively impacted . I see no other way to interpret that nor how it could be interpreted otherwise. It sure as hell can not be good. Winds "whip" here on a regular basis - and they usually do so from the South. I see us breathing "tiny droplets - basically a fume -of oil" for a long time (probably months). I call that "over the long term" with "many of these chemicals being linked to cancer. Not trying to hijack your blog Doc. I just fail to see how healthy people like me/us who will not be mitigating the spill at sea or simply living within a few miles of the shore can not be at a significant increased risk. Thanks for the work you do - and the link !

Bill ROlophMay 1 2010 11:38 PM

Gina, I live on Pensacola Beach. They are expecting the oil to reach us by May 3rd, 2010. After reading your article I am left wondering why the media is not warning residents in the areas that are affected. This could be a very bad situation. Could be it already is. You are talking about millions of people living on the coastal beaches between Louisiana and Panama City, FL. Should we not be warned? We should be evacuating just like we do during a hurricane!! I can not afford to pack up my family and leave. What are we supposed to do?

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 2 2010 12:26 AM

I hear you! This is a rather scary and unpredictable situation for all the Gulf Coast residents. People in the affected area are worried about their health, and people along the entire coast are worrying about what to do if the wind turns their way.

I've been keeping a close eye on the EPA air monitoring data, and will continue to do so. At the moment, the levels of pollutants are fairly low - not near a dangerous level - in the ambient air on shore, even in most of coastal Louisiana. The EPA trucks, however, aren't monitoring right along the beach in Venice, or in the breathing zones of people involved in the clean-up. Those are the areas I'm most concerned about right now.

The situation will change day-to-day, and even hour-to-hour, so we'll need to be alert to what's going on in the coming weeks. At the moment, I'm not suggesting anyone evacuate, except perhaps - as a precautionary measure - pregnant women and people with serious respiratory disease who live along the water in Venice.

I'll be down in the Gulf Coast by mid-week to join the NRDC rapid response team, and we'll be assessing the situation on the ground. Don't panic, but stay alert and stay tuned!

E LangleyMay 2 2010 03:05 PM

I am so thankful I came across your website. I live close to Mobile, AL and am 7 months pregnant. I also have a 17-month-old. There is very little news on human health concerns and the general attitude of the public is fairly complacent. Usually when a hurricane is in the Gulf, people are preparing, stocking up on food, boarding windows, etc. With this, not very much.

What sort of preparations to do you suggest we make? Thank you so much for your concern.

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 2 2010 06:19 PM

There's not much that people can do to prepare as the spill approaches. For the time being, Mobile and Pensacola are not in the affected zone. Air quality - as estimated by ozone (which is created from the VOCs) and particulate matter - along the coast of Alabama and Florida is looking OK ( but we'll need to see what happens over the coming days.

For pregnant women and children in the areas that aren't yet directly affected by the spill, I don't think there's much to worry about right now. Just keep an eye on the news reports or air quality readings at the above website.

If the oil gets closer, then avoid the beach areas. If the air quality gets really bad, the options can include staying mostly indoors with air conditioning on, or staying temporarily a bit further inland (if you have that option). Let's hope the air quality doesn't get that bad!

FrankMay 3 2010 02:23 PM

How far might this "fume" be hazardous?? I live only 5-6 miles as the crow flies from the shoreline in Pensacola. I understand not being financially "able" to relocate if this becomes a hazardous area, but if this becomes a serious health hazard to my kids.... Well money is not that important... I have not looked yet, but I'm going to, is there any data on the human health impact in the vicinity of other serious spills, like exxon valdez???

Lily SaavedraMay 5 2010 06:30 PM

I am pregnant and concerned about the health of my unborn baby. We live about half a mile from the mississippi gulf coast. I am concerned about the fumes that my family is breathing. Do you have any more info on this or any other areas to find info on it? You said miscarriage is possible for pregnant women, what stages would this be? all stages? or up to a certain trimester? I also have 2 children under 5 that I am concerned about the impact on their development. I am seriously considering leaving the area. Any info or advise you have would be appreciated.

Sabrina DupreeMay 7 2010 11:36 AM

My 8 year old's Cough Variant Asthma symptoms had been dormant for about 7 months now. On may 5th, with an "Air Quality Alert" in place, according to our local news/weather report, my kid's symptoms returned with a vengeance. We feel almost helpless to relieve her discomfort, though we are treating the symptoms with costly prescription medications like Singul-Air, Flovent, and her Pro-Air inhaler ($$$, even WITH our good insurance).

With 3 weeks of 3rd grade left, and both parents working full-time, leaving the area isn't a realistic option at this time. I DO anticipate, however, that we may have no choice but to request special arrangements be made with my employer so that I can take some medical leave & get her the heck out of Dodge, so to speak, for a an indefinite length of time.

This spill has absolutely created a nightmare ripple effect- from damaging the environment, the animals, the local economy, all the way to destroying peace-of-mind for everyday families just minding their own business, going to work everyday and trying to enjoy some quality of life with their loved ones - and, oh, not to mention being helplessly/financially/legally raped every time a gas tank is filled - but we've been given little choice in the matter. Just want to vent, I suppose. Thank you.

Gina Solomon, MD, MPHMay 9 2010 03:06 PM

I've been down here on the Gulf Coast for the past few days, and am closely tracking air quality information. So far, there's no unusual increase in air pollution that's likely to be related to the oil offshore. However the wind is predicted to start blowing from the South tomorrow (Monday, May 10th) and the air quality could get worse. For now, there's no reason to change your regular routines, but if the air gets worse, the recommendations could change.

Dana BlantonMay 14 2010 02:15 PM

I am 30 weeks pregnant, living in New Orleans and the smell today is quite concerning. I work at a school garden and am worried about being outside, and worried that I shouldn't be in the city at all. I have very little faith in the government putting out air qualitly advisories and am considering leaving the area to be on the safe side. Knowing what you do, what would you advise?

Gina SolomonMay 14 2010 06:21 PM

You might be smelling hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs and can irritate the eyes, cause respiratory problems (particularly in individuals with asthma), and result in nausea, dizziness, confusion and headaches. This is one of the contaminants that comes from oil. The EPA air quality data has shown some levels over the past few days that that are high enough to potentially lead to some of the above symptoms. The levels still seem to be below levels that have been linked to reproductive problems such as spontaneous abortion, but if you're smelling it strongly, it's reasonable to go inside to an air conditioned environment. The nose is actually a pretty sensitive instrument for detecting hydrogen sulfide, so you'll smell it at levels below those that are likely to harm you.

GingerMay 19 2010 12:04 AM

I live on the Northshore of New Orleans, less than a mile from Lake Ponchartrain. Many of us have noticed a smell in the area and a very slight filminess in the air or on skin at times. I have been suffering from headaches for the past few weeks and have had several people tell me the same or that they have a scratchiness to their throats or eyes burning. I walked my dog the other day of the lakefront and came home with a pounding headache. Could the oil or dispersants be affecting us here? Thank you

Lucinda Cyr-RodgersMay 20 2010 11:08 AM

Please refer to this webpage regarding crude oil toxicity:
I would not allow my children to breathe this toxic nightmare nor would I stay in the area if I were pregnant. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! BP does not care about your health or the harmful effects their toxic oil gusher will cause. Listen up New Orleans and Louisiana! Do not wait to save your own lives! Please remember Katrina! Even our own government will not tell us all the real impact this is going to have. It might scare us!

The oily smell and feel of the air is going to build up in your bodies over time. Do not sit idle. Get answers to your questions! And do not take Tylenol for your recurrent headaches! It slows down your bodies ability to detoxify itself.

Read the webpage! Protect yourselves!

KathyMay 21 2010 07:01 PM

We have planned a vacation the first week of June to Okaloosa Island, FL. We have a 14 month old it safe to be in the ocean waters or wet sand? Now we're even afraid the air is not safe.

MARIAMay 22 2010 06:12 PM

My Husband he is on site where the oil leak working to stop the leak they have to wear a resperatory mask and they are couphing and have scrathy throught doctor told them not to worry that there is no long term health effect once they are away from the job breathing the fresh air they will be fine and they will be breathing normal again i am very worried about my husband they are on the ship weeks and weeks working to stop the leak what is the risck on their long term health?

Stanley SpanglerMay 23 2010 11:37 AM

Can the possibility be ruled out that VOCs or other compounds from the oil spill can cause birth defects?

Kayla GoodMay 24 2010 07:58 AM

This may be true but it could be from many other things as well. There are many people that live on the gulf coast and some people will be affected more than others because of the immune system ans other aspects in certain people that others don't have. Some people may be more be affected than others because some people aren't used to the smell of oil so they aren't used to that and can get them sick on the other hand others who have been around oil and can tolerate the smell and they have been around it more so they have built up an immunity and tolerance to the smell of the oil and the other things it has.

Tracy MichelleMay 25 2010 05:14 PM

We are planning a trip to Destin, FL and are concerned for our three childrena

anonymousMay 26 2010 11:19 PM

BP should be responsible for the health care concerns for people. People with lung disorders are having to buy expensive medications which are going to give limited help. People who don't have theses problems now, will over a period of time.( possibly even cancer) Our state government should be advising who should evacuate and when. If they don't, perhaps some attorneys should encourage them. Lives are in jeopardy. Who of our officials will step up to the plate and tell the people how they are are going to be affected through the air we breathe . Rainwater is putting oil in the soil. Are these toxins going to be in the food we grow? All of this should be addressed by our news channels. We hear about how it is affecting everything except people. Pray we don' have a hurricane. I am trying to decide whether to go or stay.

JoyMay 26 2010 11:51 PM

Maria, your doctor is wrong. There are LONG lasting health effects from this stuff and it causes cancer. Since we don't know what is in the dispersant, we have no idea what that will do. Don't let your husband do this too long.

Jane DoeMay 27 2010 09:29 AM

What are the general properties of the COREXIT dispersant?

Does it evaporate into the atmosphere? There are NO studies about the long term environmental effects of that junk that they are dumping into out Gulf.

I'm as concerned about that as I am about the oil.

God help us.

GilMay 27 2010 03:29 PM

This is just horrific to watch. The worst environmental tragedy in US history. I just released a song about it and am offering it for free download. The song expresses the frustration I feel every day this goes on.
I'm in talks with Global Green USA about donating the song to the Gulf Coast relief effort they are raising funds for.

AnonymousMay 29 2010 03:23 AM

I. also am a health care professional. Joy Williams is correct. To tell your husband and other workers they will be fine after they leave the site is wrong. What has been inhaled will do it's damage in time. The skin will also asorb these toxins.. The suits give limited protection. Also respirator masks have to be fitted properly to be effective and most are effective for limited amounts of time without changing filters. No one should be doing this work without adequate training and safety precautions that will work. God bless people like your husband for being willing to help, BUT be careful.

David JMay 29 2010 06:39 PM


dick slaterMay 31 2010 04:17 AM

I believe that the oil is safe to swim in and may actually be benificial to your skin. If you suffer from dry itchy skin I would recomend taking a dip in the gulf. Also the oil vapor should help to lubricate your airways so that air will travel more efficiently to your lungs.

LizJun 1 2010 07:33 PM

I am from New Orleans and this spill just makes me sick! Attached is another article about the oil spill in the Gulf!

anonymousJun 2 2010 03:36 PM

To dick Slater. Hope that was a joke. Please don't take you own advice. Do your homework. This oil, absorbed in your skin and breathed into your lungs can cause cancer. Granted it may take years to cause cancer, but permanent lung damage can be immediate. This oil contains very dangerous chemicals. Check God bless.

Docteur de climatologieJun 3 2010 07:21 PM

Qin Chen, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
The ecological catastrophe in the gulf of Mexico can be compared to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Millions of gallons of oil are already in the Gulf of Mexico, and until now BP engineers failed to stop the leak.
The tornado season which has started recently in the Mexican gulf can geographically coincide with the oil spill. The oil emerging into the tornado can be air diffused. It is still debated whether the oil dispersed as an aerosol can reach explosive quality. That this situation is far from hypothetical was demonstrated by the U.S. "mother of all bombs" and the Russian "dad of all bombs". Based on the same dispersion principle, with 16,000 lbs of explosive aerosol inside, it is equivalent to 88,000 pounds of TNT.
The amount of the oil dispersed in a form of an aerosol in the tornado epicenter can be enormous. The extreme explosive capacity of the oil aerosol might affect numerous economically important centers in the U.S.

What does the U.S. government do to prevent this explosive situation?

John StokesJun 8 2010 12:20 AM

Help support awareness on the prospective destruction of Earth's vital oceans by the Gulf Oil Spill.

We welcome proposed article submissions and donations in support of investigative journalism on the Gulf Oil Spill.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In