Lung Problems Could Plague BP Oil Spill Workers

An emerging study suggests that the over 50,000 workers involved in the cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig could experience long-term breathing and health problems, said CNN. The study is looking at a 2002 oil spill that took place in Spain.

“We can’t assume it’s going to be the same here as it was there,” says David Savitz, Ph.D., professor of community health and ob-gyn at the Brown University School of Medicine, quoted CNN. “But this shows that there is the potential for health effects that go well beyond the immediate period of exposure, and it reinforces what we’ve known before—that respiratory health effects are high on that list,” added Savitz, who is a co-author of an editorial accompanying the study, wrote CNN.

The study appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine and includes 501 fishermen who assisted in the Spanish cleanup following the November 2002 oil spill when the tanker Prestige sank off the coast of Spain, said CNN. Researchers compared the 501 workers with another similar group not involved in the cleanup, added CNN.

The team found that two years following the accident in Spain, the fisherman involved in the cleanup were likelier to “report wheezing, chronic cough, and other respiratory symptoms” versus the control group, wrote CNN. Excluding smokers, workers breath contained increased levels of chemicals known to be associated with lung damage, explained CNN. Increased rates of chromosome changes in the white blood cells were seen in the workers; those changes have been associated with an increased cancer risk in other studies, according to Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, wrote CNN.

“Given these chromosomal abnormalities, I’d also worry about effects on sperm and egg cells,” said Solomon, quoted CNN. Solomon was not involved in the study. Lead researcher Joan Albert Barberà, M.D. said study results “indicate that participation in the cleanup of oil spills can have undesirable effects on health,” quoted CNN. “No evidence was found of any active illness, only biological alterations that might predispose to develop disease,” noted Barberà, professor at the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS), in Barcelona.

There are differences between the two accidents, which can affect study outcomes, wrote CNN; however, dispersants used following both accidents could also lead to respiratory issues. The U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences just announced the launch of the Gulf Worker Study, a long-term study investigating potential health issues resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill, added CNN.

We recently wrote that a group of scientists discovered a massive plume of hydrocarbons from the BP oil spill. According to a statement from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the plume measured at least 22 miles long and was located more than 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The WHOI study appeared in the August 19 issue of the journal Science.

Some 57,000 discrete chemical analyses were measured in real time during a June 19-28 scientific cruise aboard the R/V Endeavor. While the oil droplets that comprised the plume were too small for the eye to see, samples of the plume analyzed by the scientists confirmed the existence of benzene, toluene, ethybenzene, and total xylenes.

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