Early Action on the Health Consequences of the Oil Spill
September 3, 2010
Written by Cathryn Streifel
On April 20th, British Petroleum (BP)’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, causing a sea-floor oil leak one mile beneath the ocean’s surface. On June 15th, U.S. government officials estimated that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil was being discharged daily. It is estimated that from the beginning of the oil spill until July 13th, when a well cap was placed onto the leaking well, somewhere between 94 and 184 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf. On August 5th, tons of mud and cement were poured into the well, permanently sealing its flow.
The crude oil from the spill is a complex mixture of hydrogen and carbon-based chemicals. The chemical and physical properties of the oil are determined by the specific quantity of hydrocarbons. Because crude oil begins to “weather” and change its composition as it exits the well, it is currently unknown what toxins Gulf residents and workers/volunteers involved in the clean-up effort are being exposed to. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that benzene and sulfides, which are among the most hazardous substances found in crude oil, constitute less than 1% of the BP spill.
In an attempt to help collect the oil at the water’s surface, BP has sprayed approximately 1.8 million gallons of dispersants, which also contain chemicals. The benefit of dispersants is that it breaks an oil slick into small drops, making the oil less likely to stick to animals, rocks, and plants. While dispersants contain known ingredients such as detergents, solvent, and petroleum distillates, little is known about the impact on human health from using dispersants on such a large scale. The presence of underwater oil, the unprecedented use of dispersants, and the sheer volume of the spill distinguish this spill from previous oil spills.
At the end of June, at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Institute of Medicine (IOM) hosted a two-day meeting to discuss the potential health effects of this spill. At this meeting, experts from the scientific community and academia emphasized the paucity of research on the health effects of oil exposure. Indeed, while there have been 400 oil spills worldwide since 1960, epidemiological studies have been conducted on only 7. At this meeting, US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin stated that “the limited existing data are inconclusive. Some scientists predict little or no toxic threat to humans from exposure to oil or dispersants, while others express serious concern about the potential short- and long-term impact on the health of responders and affected communities.”
According to HHS officials, it may be years before the full impact of the BP oil spill on public health is known. Possible impacts which require much more study include lower-respiratory tract problems, neurological effects on children and developing fetuses, and hereditary mutations. Workers and volunteers report nausea, respiratory symptoms, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. People with asthma and other lung diseases are believed to be especially sensitive to these effects.
In partnership with state health departments, the CDC is currently monitoring surveillance data in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas to gauge the health impacts of the oil spill. Each state has a local database that collates reports on symptoms from hospitals and health clinics statewide. The CDC is also evaluating samples of the air, sediment and water in the Gulf to determine if contaminants are present at levels that are known to be dangerous to human health.
HHS has activated the National Disaster Medical System, which authorizes HHS to provide Gulf States with supplementary medical support. Additionally, HHS has reserved $10 million to study workers and volunteers involved in clean-up efforts and Gulf residents.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory to ensure that no seafood affected by the oil spill enters the marketplace. An FDA mobile lab is currently conducting prescreening analysis of seafood samples to assess if waters closed to fishing can be re-opened. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is providing technical assistance in training clean-up workers, creating rosters of workers to track them for illnesses, and coordinating the collection of analysis of injury and illness data. The National Institute of Health (NIH)’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is providing training and safety information to all BP oil spill workers.
BP has pledged $500 million to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study the impact of the spill in terms of health and the environment.
According to the Center for American Progress, the current oil crisis serves as a reminder that the U.S. does not currently have a response plan in place that can be implemented whenever a situation arises that threatens public health. The Center for American Progress argues that the United States should develop a Public Health Response Plan that would synchronize all HHS efforts, especially while the emergency plan evolves into a long-term monitoring situation. Under the Center for American Progress’s plan, whenever a public health crisis arises, the assistant secretary for health (ASH) would be responsible for ensuring that needed services are delivered and that data, information, and resources are transferred to the responsible HHS agency or agencies.