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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Could Affect Health

Gulf Coast Oil Slick Could Have Impact on Seafood and Air Quality
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 30, 2010 -- The Deepwater Horizon incident occurred about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., on April 22 after an explosion and fire damaged a Transocean oil rig, causing it to burn for hours and sink. There were approximately 700,000 gallons of fuel onboard before the fire, and exactly how much of this fuel burned before it sank is not known, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Md.

The spill could affect hundreds of species of fish, birds, and other wildlife along the Gulf Coast, which is one of the world's richest seafood grounds. According to NOAA, there may be risks for people working as oil spill responders, observers, and in wildlife rehabilitation due to inhalation of fumes.

Oil-derived compounds including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) tend to be readily cleared from fish and mammals, so eating fish after an oil spill generally does not pose a health risk to humans. But oysters, shrimp, and crab do not readily clear PAHs and are more likely to accumulate these potentially toxic substances after oil exposure, NOAA states.

These compounds can also be toxic for fish eggs and larvae and may can cause a wide range of health problems in other marine species.

Impact on Air Quality

LuAnn White, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences and the director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Public Health in New Orleans, is on the front lines of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"We are watching it very closely," she tells WebMD. "The odor from the spill could affect people with respiratory diseases such as asthma and emphysema, but the spill happened off shore, so that is good because there is no one out there," she says. The occupational health issues are immense, but proper safeguards are being taken by oil spill responders and others involved in the clean-up process, she adds.

The oil involved in the spill was sweet crude oil. "It didn't have sulfur, so it doesn't smell as bad as other types of oil and it is composed of lighter compounds that will evaporate," she explains.

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