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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Scientists See Serious Health Risks in Gulf Oil Spill

Repiratory, Mental Health Problems Among the Dangers From Exposure to Oil

How to Avoid Medical Problems From Oil Spill continued...

The authors say public health concerns are short term and long term and that the main worries are about air quality, skin irritation, seafood safety, and mental health.

The authors cite health data collected from previous oil spill disasters in Alaska, Spain, Korea, and Wales. These included information on respiratory problems, DNA alterations, anxiety, depression, psychological stress, neurological impairment, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) linked to those incidents.

The authors note that more than 300 people, mostly cleanup workers, sought medical attention in the early months after the Gulf spill. Problems for which people sought help included headaches, dizziness, nausea, chest pain, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

Solomon says that officials in Louisiana are trying to track health complaints but that it's necessary to keep in mind that the 300 reported cases were from one state, and within just a few months.

The Gulf Coast region, however, is very large, with many coastal communities, so she says it's important "that we do whatever we can to help everyone impacted by this disaster."

"Clinicians should be aware of and look for evidence of toxicity from exposures to oil and to oil and related chemicals," says Janssen. "Symptomatic patients should be asked about occupation and location of residence, and the physical examination should focus on the skin, respiratory tract, and neurological system."

Impacts of Previous Spills

The authors write that after the huge oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, 1,811 claims for workers' compensation were filed by people involved in cleanup operations.

A survey of the health status of workers 14 years after the incident found "a greater prevalence of symptoms of chronic airway disease among workers with high oil exposures," the authors write. Also, they add, some people were still reporting neurological problems when that survey was done.

DNA damage was found in workers involved in an oil spill in Spain in 2002. A mental health survey of 599 local residents a year after the Exxon Valdez spill found that people who were exposed were 3.6 times more likely to have anxiety disorder, 2.9 times more likely to have PTSD, and 2.1 times more likely to score high on scales for clinical depression.

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