Health Implications of the Gulf Disaster

The Institute of Medicine is hosting an event this week in New Orleans called "Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop." (The meeting can be viewed live on Wednesday, June 23 at the IOM website.)

There is great reason to be concerned for the health of residents in coastal areas as well as the workers involved in the cleanup. Not only is it a terrible tragedy for the families of the 11 killed in the disaster, it is a tragedy for those already complaining of respiratory problems, fatigue, and a myriad of other symptoms which mirror a toxic mold and/or chemical exposure.

Consider the Exxon oil spill of 1989. In that cleanup, one in ten workers suffered a serious injury, and most beach cleanup workers were made sick by exposure to the weathered oil and other hazardous materials.

Riki Ott is a marine biologist who says we failed to learn our lesson in 1989. Born and raised in Wisconsin, where her father led a movement to ban the use of DDT, Riki became a marine biologist and found herself in Alaska at the time of the spill. She has since dedicated her life to environmental issues.

In her May 19th blog, Riki talks about the Gulf disaster this way:

Fishermen responders who are working BP's giant uncontrolled slick in the Gulf are reporting bad headaches, hacking coughs, stuffy sinuses, sore throats, and other symptoms. The Material Safety Data Sheets for crude oil and the chemical products being used to disperse and break up the slick -- underwater and on the surface -- list these very illnesses as symptoms of overexposure to volatile organic carbons (VOCs), hydrogen sulfide, and other chemicals boiling off the slick.

When the fishermen come home, they find their families hacking, snuffling, and complaining of sore throats and headaches, too. There is a good reason for the outbreak of illnesses sweeping across this area.

Last weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted its air quality monitoring data from the greater Venice, Louisiana, area. The data showed federal standards were being exceeded by 100- to 1,000-fold for VOCs, and hydrogen sulfide, among others--and that was on shore. These high levels could certainly explain the illnesses and were certainly a cause for alarm in the coastal communities.

Another key person watching this disaster unfold is Dr. Gina Solomon MD, MPH, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She recently visited the Gulf coast and talked with people who are experiencing health issues since the spill.

People are worried, smelling things, feeling sick. It’s déjà vu for me – I’ve been through this drill before with patients who arrive in my office worried about feeling sick after being exposed to a chemical. When I try to get the scientific information I need to advise them, I hit a wall. That’s the situation in the Gulf – it’s been a month now, with no information, just layers of secrecy.

To read more on a press conference held recently by Dr. Solomon and others, see the Safer Chemicals Healthy Family blog.

In many ways this story is just beginning. There will be political and health implications for years to come. We can only hope that this tragedy will help wake us up to the reality that poisons in our air and water are indeed hazardous and life-threatening.

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