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Gulf Oil Spill Still a Health Threat to Many, Researchers Report

MONDAY, Aug. 16 (HealthDay News) -- The massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico still poses a health threat to clean-up workers, fishermen and members of coastal communities, according to a group of researchers who have examined the area.

"Clinicians should be aware of, and look for, evidence of toxicity from exposures to oil and related chemicals. Symptomatic patients should be asked about occupation and location of residence, the physical examination should focus on the skin, respiratory tract, neurological system," Dr. Sarah Janssen, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco, said in a UCSF news release.

Janssen is co-author of a commentary published online Monday by the Journal of the American Medical Association on the immediate and long-term health risks posed by toxic vapors, oil slicks, tar balls and contaminated seafood associated with the disaster.

"The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is well known as an ecological disaster, but what is less known is the risk to human health caused by oil contamination," article senior author Dr. Gina Solomon, senior director of UCSF's occupational and environmental medicine residency and fellowship program and senior scientist at the NRDC, said in the news release.

"We want to reach the volunteers, clean-up workers, fishermen, medical specialists and community members with practical information about the impact to their health from these chemicals. With correct information, we hope they can protect themselves and seek treatment if they don't feel well," Solomon said.

Air quality, skin irritation, mental health and seafood safety are the main areas of short- and long-term health concerns.

Air quality is a potential issue because volatile organic compounds can evaporate within hours after oil makes contact with water and cause respiratory irritation, headaches and nausea. However, the researchers said the air quality has improved since the oil leak was stopped.

Other chemicals released by the oil or by chemicals used to disperse oil can cause skin irritation, respiratory problems and damage to the central nervous system.

Potential mental health issues include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological stress.

Meanwhile, as more areas of the Gulf are reopened for commercial fishing, government officials are using extensive testing to ensure that seafood from the waters is safe.

But it's unclear whether this extra effort will convince consumers to start buying seafood from the Gulf in the wake of the oil spill, the Associated Press reported.

Different species clear oil contamination out of their bodies at different rates, which means some species may be declared safe before others. For example, fish are the fastest, crabs and oysters the slowest, and shrimp are somewhere in the middle, the news service said.

"I probably would put oysters at the top of the concern list and I don't think there's a close second," marine scientist George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, told the AP.

In order to reduce oil spill-related risks to human health, Solomon and Janssen offer the following advice:

  • Safety equipment for workers should include hats, gloves, boots, coveralls, safety goggles and, in some cases, respirators.
  • Workers must take breaks and drink ample fluids to prevent heat-related illness.
  • Avoid skin contact with tar or oil on beaches, marshland or in the water.
  • Don't eat fish in areas of known oil contamination or where there is visible oil.
  • Don't eat seafood that smells oily or strange.
  • If there is a strong smell of oil in the air and you feel ill, go inside and adjust the air conditioner to recirculate air.
  • If you feel persistently ill, seek medical attention.

More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more about the BP oil spill.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCES: Journal of the American Medical Association, news release, Aug. 16, 2010; Associated Press

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