What is oil spill doing to our health? Many questions, few answers in ongoing catastrophe

Thursday, July 1, 2010
By Paul Martin

Hannah Wolfson
AL.com
Thursday, July 01, 2010

The oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico is clearly harming wildlife and the economy of the region, but just how is it affecting human health?

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Share It’s a question coastal residents and visitors want answered — but so far, those answers are hard to come by.

Although health professionals in Alabama and beyond are monitoring reports of illnesses in the Gulf, they say it could be months or years before the full impact is understood.

“A lot of it depends on how long it continues and to what degree,” said Tom Miller, assistant state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health. “There are a lot of unknowns, to be honest.”

The health department is tracking reports of oil exposure from people seeking treatment in emergency rooms or urgent care centers in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. As of the beginning of this week, 37 people had been tallied since the monitoring began May 14, Miller said.

Of those, 22 had inhaled oil fumes or vapors; 11 had skin contact; three had swallowed the oil and one had both touched and inhaled it.

For now, Miller said, the best bet is for residents or visitors to stay away from the oil in the water or on the beaches. The department has reinstated advisories against swimming at and near Dauphin Island and is particularly warning pregnant women, asthmatics, children and the elderly about avoiding contact with the oil, dispersants and vapors.

“You don’t want to touch it and walk in it, and you don’t want to take home a souvenir,” Miller said. “We’ve been getting stories of people taking tarballs home as souvenirs.”

In addition to the health department, the Environmental Protection Agency is tracking air quality along the Gulf coast and has found ozone and particulate levels ranging from “good” to “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Although the odor-causing pollutants associated with the oil are generally at low levels, they may cause headaches, nausea or irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, the agency says.

CDC monitors

The Centers for Disease Control is also monitoring the spill in cooperation with state health departments and the national poison control centers, paying special attention to upper respiratory conditions, cardiovascular problems, eye issues and stomach complaints such as nausea. It’s following both workers — who have more intense exposure to the oil, as well as other issues like heat exhaustion — and the general public.

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