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Oil Spill Cleanup May Hurt Workers' Lungs

First-ever study finds long-term respiratory woes

FRIDAY, Sept. 14 (HealthDay News) -- Many of those who helped clean up an oil spill off the northwestern coast of Spain in November 2002 ended up with long-term respiratory trouble, a study finds.

It's the first research to examine the long-term effects of this kind of exposure on respiratory health.

The oil tanker Prestige sank and spilled about 67,000 tons of oil that contaminated more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline.

During the first few weeks after the disaster, much of the clean-up work was done by men and women from local fishing villages who lacked proper protective equipment.

About two years after the spill, researchers at the Hospital Universitario 12 de Octubre, Madrid, surveyed about 7,000 local people about their respiratory health. Of the respondents, about two-thirds of the men and more than half the women had directly participated in the oil spill clean-up.

"Prevalence rates of lower and upper respiratory tract symptoms were significantly higher in (those) who had participated in clean-up activities," the study authors wrote.

Overall, clean-up workers were 1.7 times more likely than others to report lower respiratory tract symptoms. Men who took part in the clean-up were twice as likely as those not involved in the clean-up to report chronic cough or phlegm or asthma within the previous year. Among women, those who took part in the clean-up were 1.7 times more likely to report chronic phlegm and 1.6 times more likely to report nasal symptoms than those not involved in the clean-up.

These symptoms of lower- and upper-respiratory tract symptoms persisted for more than a year after the last time the people helped in the clean-up. However, there was an eventual decline in symptoms, which suggests that the damage may be partly reversible, the researchers said.

The findings are published in the September issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

More information

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has more about oil and chemical spills.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Thoracic Society, news release, Sept. 14, 2007

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