May 7, 2010 11:01 AM by Sharlee Jacobs
NEW ORLEANS- With a huge and unpredictable oil slick
drifting in the Gulf of Mexico, state and federal authorities are
preparing to deal with a variety of hazards to human health if and
when the full brunt of the toxic mess washes ashore.
The list of potential threats runs from temporary, minor
nuisances such as runny noses and headaches to long-term risks such
as cancer if contaminated seafood ends up in the marketplace. While
waiting to see how bad things will get, public health agencies are
monitoring air quality, drinking water supplies and seafood
processing plants and advising people to take precautions.
"We don't know how long this spill will last or how much oil
we'll be dealing with, so there's a lot of unknowns," said Dr.
Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana's state health director. "But we're going
to make things as safe as humanly possible."
Oil has been spewing into the Gulf at a rate of at least 200,000
gallons a day since an offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20,
killing 11 people. Little if any has reached land thus far, but
shifts in wind speed and direction could propel the slick toward
In a possible hint of things to come, a foul stench drifted over
parts of southwestern Louisiana last week. The oil probably was the
culprit, said Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of
Health and Hospitals, whose office heard about dozens of complaints
- even from state legislators in New Orleans, some 130 miles from
the leaky undersea well.
"Their eyes were burning, they felt nauseated, they were
smelling it," Levine said.
Farther up the coast at Shell Beach, marina operator and
commercial fisherman Robert Campo said the smell gave him a
headache as he collected oysters 20 miles offshore. "It was
rotten," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has began
round-the-clock air monitoring in Gulf coastal areas and posting
online hourly readings for ozone and tiny particles such as soot.
Both can cause respiratory problems and are particuarly aggravating
for people with chronic conditions such as asthma.
Crude oil emits volatile organic compounds that react with
nitrogen oxides to produce ozone. Fires being set by the Coast
Guard to burn off oil on the water's surface would produce sooty,
"We don't know what the impacts are going to be yet," said
Dave Bary, an EPA spokesman in Dallas. "We don't know in what
direction this oil will go."
The potential for unhealthy air quality depends on a variety of
factors, particularly the speed and direction of winds that could
disperse fumes and determine where they go, said Jonathan Ward, an
environmental toxicology professor at the University of Texas
Medical Branch at Galveston.
With the leaky Gulf well some 50 miles offshore, Ward said much
of the oil vapor likely wouldn't reach land, although the potential
for air pollution from the slick will remain as long as the leak
Public health agencies in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi
advised people near the coast who experience nausea, headaches or
other smell-related ailments to stay inside, turn on air
conditioners and avoid exerting themselves outdoors.
In addition to air pollution, officials also were guarding
against health problems from tainted drinking water and seafood.
Some communities, including New Orleans, get their supplies from
the Mississippi River. Its southerly currents will prevent oil from
drifting upstream to city intake pipes, and the Coast Guard is
making sure that any ships with oil-coated hulls are scrubbed down
before proceeding up the river, Guidry said.
Even so, the state health department has ordered testing of
municipal water systems near the Gulf for signs of oil.
"It's next to impossible that a high amount would get in,"
Guidry said. "Even if some got through, more than likely the
treatment system would eliminate it."
The department this week began taking samples at seafood
processing plants. Officials have ordered a temporary moratorium on
fishing in federal waters from the Mississippi River to the Florida
Panhandle, but sampling will provide benchmarks enabling scientists
to track any increases in contaminant levels once fishing is
allowed to resume.
Louisiana health officials said they believe fish, shrimp and
other Gulf delicacies already on the market are safe.
"If we see increases in hydrocarbons or other contaminants,
we'd stop the flow of seafood," Levine said.
Even after the immediate crisis passes, risks could linger for
years, said Gina Solomon, an associate professor at the University
of California-San Francisco medical school and a senior scientist
with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Exposure to some of the chemicals in oil has been linked to
cancer," Solomon said. "Those chemicals can get into sediments in
the Gulf, build in the food chain and be a long-term problem in
fish and shellfish."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working
with epidemiologists in the Gulf states to develop studies of
health repercussions from the oil spill, Guidry said.
Yet another hazard is direct contact with oil-saturated water -
particularly for cleanup crews and volunteers involved in animal
When the container ship Cosco Busan hit a bridge and released
53,000 gallons of highly toxic bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay
in November 2007, officials managing the cleanup ordered volunteers
to wear protective suits, gloves and masks that later were
discarded at a hazardous waste dump. Some oil fouled beaches, which
were closed to prevent danger to the public.
People working around the Gulf spill should be equipped with
respirator devices and wear heavy-duty gloves and protective
clothing to guard against painful skin rashes, said Solomon, who
has treated patients exposed to oil fumes.
"The workers absolutely need to be protected," Solomon said.
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