The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put together a website for residents along the Gulf coast in response to questions about their health risks and the smells they have encountered since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Other questions have since been raised about strange respiratory illnesses among clean-up workers and exposure to dispersants and the byproducts of burning oil slicks.
General Health Risks Associated with Oil Spills
- Respiratory issues – The oil smell can be harsh as volatile compounds are carried from the spill in the air to shore communities. Inhaling the compounds can cause the common respiratory symptoms of coughing and shortness of breath, as well as nausea and flu-like symptoms. The possibility of particulates in the air is increased when an oil slick is burned. Exposure to chemicals that affect the lungs can also irritate the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat, causing redness.
- Anxiety and stress –Much of the reported illness surrounding an oil spill is attributed to apprehension. As residents are given information about the potential for toxic compounds being present in the air, they may complain of the symptoms. The psychological distress caused by such a disaster was studied after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Researchers found long-term negative impacts on mental health, both in those who were directly affected economically and on the concerned general public. They have also found that localized oil spills and leaks have profound psychological effects on the communities they disrupt (Picou and Gill, The Exxon Valdez oil spill and chronic psychological stress, American Fisheries Society Symposium, 1996).
- Dehydration – Anyone working for long periods of time, especially outdoors in the heat, can be subject to dehydration due to water lost by sweating. Severe dehydration can require medical attention. Early stages of dehydration are indicated by fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and muscle weakness, but can be addressed by increasing fluid intake.
- Chemical pneumonia – Chemical irritation of the lungs can be caused by the dispersants used to break up oil on the surface of the water. The volatile compounds in the air from an oil spill can cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea as they displace oxygen in the lungs and irritate the respiratory mucosa, leading to inflammation.
- Skin irritation – People should not touch the oil or tar balls formed from an oil spill in the water. The dispersants used to clean up the oil on the surface can cause a rash and dry, irritated skin.
- Nausea – The volatile chemicals released by an oil spill can cause nausea at concentrations much lower than what is needed to make a person physically ill. Swallowing any of the water containing dispersants can irritate the stomach and cause nausea and vomiting.
Reported Health Issues Along the Gulf Coast
Residents of the Louisiana coast began complaining of severe allergy-like symptoms, including scratchy eyes, sore throat, and respiratory problems, just one month after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Toxicologists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have monitored the levels of particulates in the air. The leaking rig was 50 miles offshore, and no particulates were being detected at that time, leading many to cite stress and apprehension. Parts of the Louisiana coast were seeing particulate levels in the moderate range.
By the end of May 2010, volunteer workers were being hospitalized for dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Dehydration and a lack of respiratory masks were cited as a cause of concern. By June 10, 2010 more than 86 workers and residents in Louisiana and Alabama had been treated for some of the minor illnesses noted above (DemocracyNow). By June 28, 2010, the number had climbed to 162 cases in Louisiana alone, 128 of which were clean-up workers (CNN). The Coast Guard also confirmed in June that two workers had died, though the causes of death were not released. Over the July 4th weekend, health officials confirmed that 400 people have become sick after swimming off the beach near Pensacola, Florida (Examiner). The exact toll may not be known for years.
Non-oil-related Health Risks to Volunteers
The wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico is home to a number of animals, including venomous snakes, of which there are six species volunteers along the Gulf coast could potentially encounter in their clean-up efforts (University of Florida). The bayou of Louisiana and wetlands along the Mississippi and Florida coasts are also the known habitat of the American alligator, whose sharp teeth and powerful jaws make him an unwanted guest among the workers (National Geographic). More information on the various animals and animal-related health risks are available from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).