Minimizing Toxic Health Effects from the Gulf Oil Spill

While oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill may have stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, experts are far from finished working to anticipate, outline and minimize the disaster’s potential health risks, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Public Health researcher involved in helping the federal government deal with the spill’s repercussions.

The Gulf leak was the equivalent of a supertanker spill every week, explained Nalini Sathiakumar, M.D., Dr.P.H., an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Epidemiology and a pediatric nephrologists. Sathiakumar is part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ad-hoc team formed in July that is in discussions to plan and execute research strategies surrounding health outcomes due to the oil spill.

While some of the short-term health effects are known – watery and irritated eyes, skin itching and redness, coughing and shortness or breath or wheezing – there also are many unknown health effects, said Sathiakumar. Even tourists, beach-goers and seafood lovers will face some risks going forward, she said.

Short- and Long-Term Effects

CDC is reviewing the sampling of data to determine whether exposure to oil, oil constituents and/or dispersants might cause short-term or long-term health effects. These data include sampling results for air, water, soil, sediment and oil material reaching beaches and marshes.

About 400 tanker spills have occurred since the 1960s, and 38 of them involved supertankers, including the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. But only seven of those supertanker spills have been studied, and those examined the short-term toxic and psychological effects with limited analysis of the long-term effects.

Sathiakumar investigated the large spill that resulted when a Greek supertanker ran aground in 2003 off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. An investigation of the Karachi incident found commonly reported symptoms were temporary eye, throat or skin irritation, headaches or general malaise. These health effects showed a clear sign of decreasing in number as people moved further away from the spill site, she said.

“This already is an unprecedented tragedy,” she said of the Gulf oil spill. “We need to move quickly to monitor and study the physical and psychological impacts in the short term and long term among clean-up workers, volunteers and in adults and children, and we need to follow these with long-term studies.”

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