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Disagreement and uncertainty about Gulf oil spill effects on human health

Almost 8 weeks into the Gulf oil spill, the spill’s stunning ecological consequences are hard to ignore. But the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several other local and national officials is that the spill poses only mild, temporary health risks to cleanup workers and none at all to the general public.
As MSNBC reports, the public is skeptical of the governments’ claims relating to oil spill safety. And a recent post in the Los Angeles Times’ Greenspace blog points out that there haven’t been enough studies of the long-term health effects of oil spills to fully understand their impact on humans:

“Several people who worked on the Valdez spill complained of health problems,” added Dr. Stephen Cunnion, medical director for the Center for Health Policy and Preparedness at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Skin and respiratory problems were the most common complaint from workers there, but little is known about longer-term effects. “There was no study,” Cunnion said. “Not following up on people in these situations has always been a problem.”

Another recent article in the Washington Post notes that the more than 1 million gallons of chemical dispersants BP has pumped into the Gulf might change the toxicity of the oil.

The dispersants themselves, Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A, are classified as posing low and moderate human health risks. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), Corexit 9527A contains a substance called 2-butoxyethanol, which can the irritate skin, lungs and digestive tract and can cause nausea over short-term exposure and damage liver and kidneys in the long term. The MSDS notes that the potential human hazard of Corexit 9527A is “high,” but that the potential for exposure while wearing gloves, goggles and standard protective clothing is low. The Post article also questioned whether officials in charge of the cleanup are doing enough to keep workers safe:

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences designed a worker safety training course in English, Spanish and Vietnamese that all gulf oil spill cleanup workers are supposed to complete before they can be hired. They are also supposed to be equipped with protective gear, such as gloves and boots. Nevertheless, anecdotal reports have emerged of workers doing cleanup in street clothes and bare hands, raising questions about how well trained and equipped they are.

The EPA has already asked BP to discontinue its use of dispersants and to ramp up its efforts to find less toxic alternatives. But BP has continued to use them, and last week a federal expert panel recommended as much.

In addition to the physical effects of oil spills, a few studies have suggested a relationship between oil spills and psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in people exposed to the spill and clean-up. The American Journal of Psychiatry published one such study in 1993 after the Exxon Valdez spill, and the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published another after the Sea Empress tanker spill.

In the meantime, the Huffington Post reports that Erin Brockovich is on her way to southern Louisiana to speak with people who claim the dispersants made them ill.

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