Oil Spill and Dispersant Effects on Humans: The Jury is Still Out

Jul 6th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, requested a review by medical researchers on the potential health effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the worst in the history of the United States.  The group, organized by the Institute of Medicine (independent group chartered by Congress) met last week in New Orleans.  The meeting attempted to address many questions senior citizens are raising about the effects of the oil spill and dispersants on humans.

The researchers agreed there is very little research on how oil spills affect human health, in spite of the fact they are a common occurrence (more than 30 spills in the past 40 years).  Concern at the workshop ranged from little to none, to major long-term health risks.

Dr Scott Barnhart, University of Washington specializing in internal medicine and lung diseases said, “It is true that cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer acute effects—stinging eyes, rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughs and other respiratory symptoms.  Any of these effects I don’t think we would expect to be permanent; we would expect these to be reversible.”  He also said, as did the other researchers, there is no convincing evidence that people exposed to crude oil have more serious long-term problems, such as cancer.

A study was done at the University of A Coruna in Spain following the 2002 wreck of the tanker, Prestige.  The ‘Black Tides’ covered the shores of Galicia following that oil spill.  Blanca Laffon and other university researchers tested hundreds of cleanup workers for evidence of DNA damage in human cell nuclei; results were compared with people who were not exposed to the oil.  Initially, oil exposure revealed DNA damage greater in those exposed to oil.  However, when the subjects were tested several months later, the damage had been repaired.  Laffon said the initial damage was not ‘fixed as chromosomal damage’.  More research is currently being conducted, now eight years after the oil spill.  Questions remain about the effects on children whose more vulnerable bodies are at greater risk for chemical damage.

In addition, concern has been expressed over the use of the dispersant, Corexit 9500, in the Gulf oil spill.  Paul Anastas, Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for research and development, said there is no sign that dispersants are remaining in the water or settling to the bottom; however, the EPA is not making any new recommendations until it conducts more tests.

It sounds like the jury is still out on possible health effects to humans from the horrendous ecological and economical disaster in the Gulf.



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  1. [...] Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Blog Ecological Impact Mythology | Gulf … Oil Spills – adverse effects on marine environmental bio-system … Ocean Leadership – NIH Begins Study of Oil Spill's Impact on Residents Effects of Oil Spill and Dispersants on Humans | Senior Citizen …Description : The effects of the Gulf oil spill and dispersants used in the water are unknown, and will likely not be identified for years to come. Few studies have been conducted that provide any reliable information.http://www.seniorcitizenjourna .. [...]

  2. [...] Effects of Oil Spill and Dispersants on Humans | Senior Citizen … The effects of the Gulf oil spill and dispersants used in the water are unknown, and will likely not be identified for years to come. Few studies have been conducted that provide any reliable information.http://www.seniorcitizenjourna .. [...]

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