Oil Spill Cleanup Tied to Adverse Health Effects

Fishermen who helped clean up a 2002 oil spill off the coast of Spain had lingering respiratory symptoms and evidence of airway and chromosomal damage two years later, researchers found.

The study was prompted by early evidence for damage to the lower respiratory tract in Prestige oil spill cleanup workers. Based on those findings, Dr. Joan Albert Barberà of the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona and colleagues wanted to see whether these effects -- and others -- had persisted 22 to 27 months after the initial spill.

They recruited 678 fishermen from coastal villages near the spill; 501 had performed extensive cleanup work and 177 had not. All underwent lung function tests and were asked about respiratory symptoms.

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Fishermen who had worked on the cleanup were 8 percent more likely to report lower respiratory tract symptoms, even after the researchers accounted for gender differences and smoking status. Non-smokers were 24 percent more likely to have structural chromosomal abnormalities -- an unexpected finding that may reflect an increased risk of cancer, the researchers noted.

The findings suggest that exposure to oil sediments during spill clean-up efforts, even for short periods of time, may have detrimental health effects, Dr. Joan Albert Barbera of the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona and colleagues reported online in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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Acute exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons, common components of oil, has been shown to cause respiratory symptoms. And certain oil compounds, such as benzene, are carcinogenic to humans, according to Barbera and colleagues.

The researchers acknowledged, however, that the clinical significance of their findings was unclear and that the associations were not necessarily causal.

They cautioned also that the findings may not apply to other spills, noting that the oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon exploded earlier this year was a different type than that of the Spanish disaster, which spilled more than 67,000 tons of bunker oil into the Atlantic.

In an accompanying editorial, David Savitz of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Lawrence Engel of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said that each oil spill provides lessons for future events.

"Disaster epidemiology advances one disaster at a time, and the most recent report on the Prestige oil spill is a notable step forward," they wrote. "It reminds us of the importance of incorporating measurement of both biomarkers and clinical outcomes."

As for the more recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Savitz and Engel wrote, researchers responding to the scene "must be aware that their studies will provide much-needed information for the affected communities as well as for future communities who suffer similar calamities."