BP Oil Spill Health Risks May Linger for Years

The BP oil spill is likely to threaten human health and seafood safety for years to come, according to a commentary published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The authors of the commentary, Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, and Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, both of the University of California, San Francisco, point to research from other oil spills to back up their conclusions.

According to the authors, crude oil contains components, such as benzene, napthalene and toluene, which are toxic to humans. Benzene is known to cause leukemia, while napthalene is a suspected human carcinogen. Benzene and toluene, along with xylene, another component of oil, can also cause respiratory irritation and affect the central nervous system. Skin contact with oil and dispersants may cause dermatitis and increase the risk of skin infections.

The commentary notes that in the early months of the spill, more than 300 individuals, three-fourths of whom were cleanup workers, sought medical care for constitutional symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cough, respiratory distress, and chest pain in Louisiana alone. These symptoms, the authors write, are typical of acute exposure to hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide.

The commentary also warns that oil releases dangerous chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide gas and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Hydrogen sulfide gas can damage the brain and central nervous system, they said, while polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, considered likely carcinogens, will accumulate for years in oysters, shrimp and crabs.

Other components of oil, such as mercury, cadmium and lead, can accumulate over time in fish tissues, potentially increasing future health hazards from consumption of large fin fish such as tuna and mackerel.

Other large oil spills have resulted in long-term health problems in many people, the authors write. For example, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, a total of 1811 workers’ compensation claims were filed by cleanup workers; most were for acute injuries but 15 percent were for respiratory problems and 2 percent for dermatitis. A survey of the health status of workers 14 years after the cleanup found a greater prevalence of symptoms of chronic airway disease among workers with high oil exposures, as well as self-reports of neurological impairment and multiple chemical sensitivity

Mental health issues could also plague victims of the Gulf oil spill later on, according to the commentary. A mental health survey of 599 local residents 1 year after the Exxon Valdez spill found that exposed individuals were 3.6 times more likely to have anxiety disorder, 2.9 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, and 2.1 times more likely to score high on a depression index. Adverse mental health effects were observed up to 6 years after the oil spill. Likewise, studies following major spills in Spain, Korea, and Wales have documented elevated rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychological stress, according to the commentary.

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