Oil Spill Raises Public Health Concerns

 

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is now in its second month. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon experienced an explosion that not only killed 11 crew members, but sent the drilling rig 5,000 feet underwater, breaking pipes and causing the worst oil disaster in history. To date, the broken pipes are still leaking thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf with no guaranteed solution, no one to blame and no end in sight. Meanwhile, oil is washing ashore in Louisiana while Alabama, Florida and Mississippi await the inevitable. Already hundreds of miles of shoreline and coastal waters have been closed for fishing, calling into question the economic livelihood of many locals, not to mention the environmental impact on the area’s wetlands and wildlife. But aside from the economic and environmental consequences, there are also public health concerns to consider.
A crude oil spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico not only affects the water in which it takes place and the shoreline it touches, but also the air surrounding it. Tiny particles are released from the oil on the surface and become airborne, causing increased toxicity in the atmosphere above the spill. In addition, clean-up efforts have included heavy reliance on dispersants: 800,000 gallons of chemicals have been sprayed on the spill, intended to dilute the oil in the water. The combination of these fumes makes the air more toxic. Every time the wind blows, the public is more at risk.

Exposure to oil fumes can cause such minor ailments as skin damage, headaches, dizziness, nausea and coughing. Those most at susceptible are the ones most exposed, such as volunteers attempting to clean up the spill and workers trying to contain it. Gulf coast locals are also in danger, especially those suffering from respiratory problems, the elderly and children who may experience abnormal growth, brain damage or even cancer. Other serious exposure risks include liver and kidney disease, lung damage, infertility and nerve damage. Crude oil contains multiple carcinogens and is therefore dangerous at any level of exposure though the effects can be slightly thwarted with the use of respirators and other protective gear.

BP is required by law to provide workers with the proper safety gear, including gloves, respirators and full body suits. However, the LA Times reported on May 26th, 36 days after the accident, clean-up crews were still not receiving proper protective gear. The same problem was reported after the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989, when workers reported severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing.

Controversy still exists as to whether or not workers should be required to wear respirators and if allegations that workers arriving to work wearing respirators have been turned away are true or false. Whatever the case, EPA air quality tests have shown that the toxic fumes in the air above Louisiana is detrimental to the public health, causing locals to clamor for more testing and full disclosure. As of Friday, five offshore rigs were shut down after workers fell ill and several other workers have been hospitalized.

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