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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Scientists See Serious Health Risks in Gulf Oil Spill

Repiratory, Mental Health Problems Among the Dangers From Exposure to Oil
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 16, 2010 -- The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico poses serious health risks for the people who are working to clean it up and others who venture into the coastal area, scientists say in a commentary in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Some components of oil called volatile organic compounds may cause respiratory irritation and nervous system disorders, according to the commentary by Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, and Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, both of the University of California, San Francisco.

Skin contact with oil and dispersants may cause dermatitis and increase the risk of skin infections, the authors say.

Those at risk include fishermen, cleanup workers, volunteers, and members of communities along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the authors write.

According to the commentary, seafood, including fish and shellfish, may become contaminated by hydrocarbons from the oil. Trace amounts of cadmium, mercury, and lead in oil can accumulate in the tissues of fish over time, posing a health hazard with ingestion.

Their article, posted online Aug. 16, will appear in print in the Sept. 8 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The scientists say the goal of their commentary is to inform doctors and people in coastal communities about both immediate and long-term risks posed by toxic vapors, oil slicks, tar balls, and contaminated seafood.

"The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is well known as an ecological disaster, but what is less known is the risk to human health caused by oil contamination," the authors say. "We want to reach the volunteers, clean-up workers, fishermen, medical specialists, and community members with practical information about the impact to their health from these chemicals."

"With correct information, we hope they can protect themselves and seek treatment if they don't feel well," the scientists write.

How to Avoid Medical Problems From Oil Spill

Among other things, the authors say workers may need protective equipment such as hats, gloves, boots, coveralls, safety goggles, and respirators, in some cases. They offer this advice:

  • Workers should take breaks and drink lots of fluids to prevent heat-related illnesses.
  • Workers and all others should avoid skin contact with tar or oil on beaches, in marshlands, or in the water.
  • People should not go fishing in areas known to be contaminated by oil, or where the black stuff is visible.
  • People should not eat seafood that smells strange or oily.
  • People who feel ill from smelling an odor caused by the oil should go inside and adjust air conditioning systems to get the air moving.
  • Anyone who feels ill should seek medical help to at least have symptoms assessed.

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