Health Effects of the Oil Spill

18 06 2010

Oil spill—say those two words in a group of people and you’ll likely see responses ranging from anger to confusion to despair. The worst environmental disaster of our age is difficult to comprehend much less address in any real way. The extent of the damage to air, water, and soil quality won’t be understood for a long time, though they are being monitored very closely by CDC, EPA, and other organizations.

As parents, our first concern is the potential impact of the oil spill on our children’s health. Since the spill is happening now, data isn’t yet available to help us understand the health challenges the people of the Gulf Coast region, and more specifically the children in that area, will face. And what of those children already living with health challenges such as chronic infections? How will the spill impact their quality of life? No one knows.

According to former CDC Director John Howard, even the long-term impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill aren’t fully understood, noting that “One of the deficiencies there is that we were able to ascertain some acute effects but we didn’t follow through for chronic effects,” he said. “To be able to identify chronic effects, you have to start very early.”

While anecdotal evidence indicates the clean-up crew who worked the 1989 Valdez spill suffer from the Valdez Crud, no studies were conducted addressing the health dangers posed to Alaskan children by that spill.

Dr. Gina Solomon says that clean-up crew who worked more than “20 days in highly polluted areas, performing 3 or more tasks, having skin contact with oil, or eating while in contact with oil” were more likely to suffer dizziness, nausea, sore throats, and itchy eyes.

Environmental impacts are being felt by those living in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama. There are no definitive estimates about the eventual range of the spill, nor are there any estimates about the date of containment. To stay current with the potential health impacts of the spill, check with CDC’s Health Surveillance.

Food – Seafood safety is particularly concerning during this spill. Though Louisiana has closed some areas of the coastline for seafood harvesting, other areas remain open. Both the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) and the FDA are charged with public notification if or when seafood becomes contaminated. Currently, the FDA assures people that seafood is still safe to eat.

Air – The EPA is monitoring air quality using mobile labs along the coastlines of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida.  As of 16 June, these labs have not detected levels of toxins such as propylene glycol high enough to cause health effects.  However, the dispersants used to clean up the spill do pose a risk to those working in clean-up efforts and those near these efforts.

Water – According to the EPA, drinking water should not be impacted by the spill. However, water used for recreation and industries such as fishing is obviously impacted. Each of the four states offer state-specific information via the CDC website.

Protecting the health of our children during an environmental disaster requires special care, patience, and persistence. As the potential health effects of the Gulf oil spill become known, more specific actions will be required.

What We can Do Now to Protect Our Family’s Health

  1. Monitor air quality and stay indoors if air quality becomes too poor
  2. Stay current with the CDC health updates
  3. Call the Environmental Hotline/Community Information Line with specific health questions- 866.448.5816
  4. Before heading to a specific beach, check the status of the spill in that area
  5. Exposure to crude oil, even in small amounts, can lead to dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision, and if your child is near a contaminated beach and complains of any of these symptoms, immediately take him or her to the doctor
  6. If your child is exposed to oil or oil residue, wash the area immediately using soap and water, or an oil-removing cleanser. For children with respiratory problems, the effect of the spill on air quality in and around Gulf Coast beaches will be exacerbated for them

What You Can Do to Help:

  1. If you live in the region, report any oiled wildlife
  2. Volunteer your time to help clean-up efforts
  3. Add the EPA oil spill widget to your Facebook page or website in order to inform more people about actions they can take in the wake of the spill.