Minimizing Toxic Health Effects from the Gulf Oil Spill

Aug. 2, 2010
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.”

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

Sponsored Recommendations

Free Webinar: ISO 45001 – A Commitment to Occupational Health, Safety & Personal Wellness

May 30, 2024
Secure a safer and more productive workplace using proven Management Systems ISO 45001 and ISO 45003.

ISO 45003 – Psychological Health and Safety at Work

May 30, 2024
ISO 45003 offers a comprehensive framework to expand your existing occupational health and safety program, helping you mitigate psychosocial risks and promote overall employee...

DH Pace, national door and dock provider, reduces TRIR and claims with EHS solution

May 29, 2024
Find out how DH Pace moved from paper/email/excel to an EHS platform, changing their culture. They reduced TRIR from 4.8 to 1.46 and improved their ability to bid on and win contracts...

Case Study: Improve TRIR from 4+ to 1 with EHS Solution and Safety Training

May 29, 2024
Safety training and EHS solutions improve TRIR for Complete Mechanical Services, leading to increased business. Moving incidents, training, and other EHS procedures into the digital...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!