Louisiana Locals Worry About Oil Spill's Health Effects

Dozens in Louisiana have been hospitalized with health problems blamed on airborne toxic chemicals in the air a month after oil began to flood the Gulf of Mexico from a broken BP pipeline.

Those exposed to the growing oil spill include residents, cleanup workers and those providing relief aid. Thus far, 71 have been hospitalized due to oil spill related health problems, according to the Louisiana state health department. And while some say chemicals in the oil itself are to blame, others speculate chemicals called dispersants being used to break up the massive slick could be playing a role.

VIDEO: Dr. Richard Besser reports on the health risks of the BP oil spill.
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One local fisherman was evacuated by helicopter to West Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans from his boat after he reported feeling dizzy.

"I was feeling weak and I had high blood pressure," the fisherman, who did not want to be identified, told West Jefferson Medical employees in an interview videotaped by the hospital. "We thought it was maybe from the dispersant. We had other guys too that was feeling bad. He had aches and nauseated."

Doctors at West Jefferson Medical Center concluded the fisherman's symptoms suggested he was exposed to some kind of irritant and exposure. However, according to Dr. Robert Chugden, medical director for emergency services at West Jefferson Medical Center, it is difficult to tell whether the oil spill is in fact the culprit for many patients' symptoms.

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Gulf Oil Slick's Impact on Swimmers

"In all honesty they're working in a hot, muggy, high-humidity environment, so that alone can bring on these symptoms," said Chugden. "It's very hard to say what's going on. But having petroleum fumes surrounding you is not pleasant."

Many Factors of Oil Spill are Dangerous, Experts Say

Federal agencies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, also report that many relief workers responding to the oil spill have been exposed to dangerous levels of airborne toxins.

Many experts say oil can do harm both through direct contact and airborne exposure to the chemicals. Many studies suggest that short-term exposure to oil can be linked to nausea, headache, dizziness, and eye and throat irritation, as well as both upper and lower respiratory tract symptoms.

When crude oil is exposed to air, it can turn into thick, sticky tar balls. Some people who come in contact with them may have allergic reactions to the chemicals. But in general, Chugden said, the thicker the oil, the less toxic it is.

However, according to Dr. Michael Harbut, director of the environmental cancer program at Wayne State University in Detroit, tar balls, though not as dangerous, may signal the presence of crude oil.

"While it's still pumping, you don't have any idea if you're looking at an isolated tarball, or a harbinger of more serious consequence," said Harbut. "Where there's a tar ball, there's a crude oil concentration not far behind."

Besides the danger of inhaling fumes emitted by oil, planned burning of petroleum can also be a health hazard, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA says tiny particles in the smoke can drift into the air downwind of the burn, and these particles can irritate the lungs of people with asthma and other lung diseases. Pregnant women, children and the very old can also be sensitive.

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