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Gulf Oil Spill's Toll on Nation's Beaches

Report Cites Thousands of Beach Closings, Advisories, and a Host of Possible Health Problems
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 28, 2010 -- One in five beaches off the Gulf of Mexico has been closed this season because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental action group headquartered in New York City.

There were 2,239 beach closings and advisory days issued along beaches in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi since the April 22 spill -- a number that is 10 times higher than beach closings and advisory days in these areas for any reason in 2009, says David Beckman, director of the NRDC's water program. To date, there have been no official beach closures or advisories in Texas, which also is adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., after an explosion and fire damaged a Transocean oil rig, causing it to burn for hours and sink. As a result, oil has streaked shorelines along the Gulf.

Calling the oil spill an "'unprecedented and unfolding disaster," Beckman says that "oil has heavy metal and toxic chemicals that you may be breathing in on a contaminated beach." Coming into direct contact with the oil may cause a host of health problems including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and skin rashes and irritation.

"If you are at a beach where you can see or smell oil, leave," he advises. "In addition to ruining your day at the beach, by breathing in oil instead of sea air, there can be direct health impacts."

Jon Devine, an attorney with the NRDC's water program, says that "we need to take new and strong action to make sure that companies have adequate clean-up procedures in the event of another disaster and change policies to make sure something like this doesn’t have to happen again."

Using cleaner energy sources and not rushing to do any more deep-water drilling are part of the solution, he says.

2009 Beach Water Quality Ratings

This is the 20th year that NRDC has issued the report on water quality at beaches. In previous years, the group only rated beach water quality using a five-star system based on pollution problems, monitoring of pollution, and how quickly or how well beaches warn beachgoers about potential contamination.

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