Large Scale Study of BP Oil Spill Health Effects Planned

Plans are being made to study the health impacts of the BP oil spill. According to the Associated Press, the Department of Health and Human Services has commissioned the nonprofit Institute of Medicine to gather a committee of experts to conduct the study in the five Gulf Coast states affected by the oil spill. The study will be funded with a $10 million contribution from BP.

Researchers hope to enroll 27,000 people who participated in oil spill cleanup. Recruitment of volunteers will begin next month. The expert committee formed by the Institute of Medicine met in Tampa, Florida yesterday to discuss how to conduct the study.

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.

Oil also releases hydrogen sulfide gas, which can damage the brain and central nervous system as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are considered likely carcinogens.

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 are typical of acute exposure to hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide.

Despite these hazards, little research has been done on the health consequences of oil spills. According to the Associated Press, of the 38 large oil tanker spills in past 50 years, only 8 were studied for human health effects.

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