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Gina Solomon

Gina Solomon

Posted: May 5, 2010 11:04 AM

Q&A PART 1: Gulf Coast Oil Spill and Your Health -- The Basics

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As we’re waiting for the full scale of environmental, economic and wildlife impacts from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to unfold, there’s a lot of speculation and unanswered questions going around about what this means for the health of people living and working in the region. 

To help answer these questions, I’ve put together a three-part Q&A on what this means for human health. I’ll post the 3 parts of this Q&A over the course of the week, and in this first post I’ll answer some of the basic background health questions I’m hearing about the spill below. In later posts I’ll look at who’s at risk, and health tips for people working on the clean-up – stay tuned.

What’s actually in oil that could be hazardous to health?

Oil contains a mixture of chemicals. The main ingredients are various hydrocarbons, some of which can cause cancer (e.g. the PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons); other hydrocarbons can cause skin and airway irritation. There are also certain volatile hydrocarbons called VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which can cause cancer and neurologic and reproductive harm. Oil also contains traces of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, and lead.

How can these chemicals get into our bodies?

VOCs and some of the other hydrocarbons can be inhaled, causing lung problems and other health effects. Skin contact causes irritation and rashes. The oil will contaminate fish and shellfish, causing health risks from eating these foods that could persist for years.

What are the acute health effects from exposure to the oil?

Inhalation of oil vapors or aerosolized particles (from wind-blown waves), can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, irritation of the eyes and throat, and difficulty breathing.

People with asthma or other lung diseases could have serious exacerbations. High-dose inhalation (if people are very close to the vapors) may cause a chemical pneumonia known as “hydrocarbon pneumonia”, which can require hospital care. Direct skin contact can cause various kinds of rashes, including generalized skin irritation, or something known as “folliculitis” from oil-clogged skin pores.

What about if they’re burning the oil offshore?

Burning will release particulate matter, which is harmful to the lungs. To check on particulate matter levels in your area, check out the EPA AirNow website. If the air is noticeably smoky, or if the levels of particulate matter are high on the EPA website, avoid any strenuous activities outdoors. For people with heart or lung disease, children, or the elderly: consider staying indoors in an air-conditioned room, and change the air-conditioner filter to make sure it is maximally effective.

How does this situation affect the shrimping/fishing industry in terms of the quality of our food?

Apart from the economic disaster to the industry, this spill poses a long-term health concern for the safety of the fish and shellfish. Contaminants in oil can persist for years and accumulate in the food chain, causing elevated cancer risks or neurological risks from exposure to heavy metals such as mercury.

Are there any health concerns associated with dispersants?

Dispersants are somewhat volatile and some will enter the air. Therefore it is really critical for clean-up workers and volunteers to wear personal protection equipment at all times when either applying the dispersant or working near where it has been applied. By the time the dispersants reach shore, they will probably be highly diluted and won’t pose a threat for communities, but this is something we’ll keep an eye on if they start using dispersants close to populations.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.