Senate Panel Seeks Answers on Oil Spill’s Health Consequences

No one knows exactly how long the toxic oil and chemical dispersants now flooding the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill might pose a threat to both human health and wildlife. At a Senate hearing yesterday, experts urged additional health monitoring and research to help develop strategies to deal with the health consequences of the disaster.

Yesterday’s hearing, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, looked at steps taken so far to monitor and deal with health issues, and what the longer-term threats and effects may be. The panel was told that it could be years before the spill’s impact on health would be known.

“The impacts of this disaster must be considered in the framework in not weeks or months, but years,” Lisa Kaplowitz, a deputy assistant secretary of health and human services involved in preparedness and response said in a prepared response. She added that there was a lack of long-term assessments on the toxicity of oil in the environment.

Other witnesses echoed those concerns.

“When you look at the world’s literature, you may have 40 articles you can turn to, and not all of them of high quality,” John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, noted.

The impact of the spill on the food supply is also an area of deep concern. At yesterday’s hearing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official said seafood from the Gulf of Mexico available to consumers in stores and restaurants now is safe.

“We are confident that Gulf of Mexico seafood that is in the market today is safe to eat,” said Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner of the FDA.

Banning fishing in oil-affected waters had successfully prevented tainted seafood from reaching U.S. markets so far, Taylor said. At this time, 32 percent of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico have been closed to fishing, encompassing areas known to be affected by oil, either on the surface or below the surface, as well as areas projected to be affected by oil in the next 48–72 hours.

Taylor also said the agency is testing seafood from the area for toxins. The agency is placing a particular emphasis on shellfish such as crabs, shrimp and oysters that are less likely to escape oil contamination and can retain the toxins for a longer time, he said.

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