MONDAY, Aug. 23 (HealthDay News) -- The fate of fishermen involved in cleaning up a massive oil spill off the northwest coast of Spain in 2002 could shed light on potential health problems facing workers involved in the recent Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Authors reporting in the Aug. 24 online issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that Spanish fishermen exposed to the earlier oil spill had higher rates of respiratory symptoms. Although their lung function was not significantly different from fishermen who had no contact with the spill, the exposed individuals were more likely to have biomarkers for lung disease. And compared to their counterparts who were not exposed to the oil spill, a higher proportion of exposed fishermen also showed chromosomal abnormalities in the immune cells known as lymphocytes, which the authors conjecture might be a harbinger of later cancer.
Although it's not at all clear what the long-term or even mid-term effects of the Deepwater disaster are likely to be, people involved in the clean-up at least need to be aware of potential risks, experts noted.
"When you have this massive of a spill, the number of people working out there have to be aware of the potential effects of being immersed in a hot, petroleum-rich environment where people are inhaling fumes," said Dr. Jeff Kalina, associate medical director of the emergency department at The Methodist Hospital in Houston.
The authors of the Spanish paper followed 501 fishermen who had been exposed during the clean-up of 67,000 tons of bunker oil off Galicia, Spain, comparing their health to 177 non-exposed fishermen two years after the spill.
Oil-exposed fishermen were 8 percent more likely to have lower respiratory tract symptoms than their non-exposed counterparts. Some also had indications that their airways were trying to heal themselves, indicating some
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