Oil Spill Invades Beaches: Is It a Health Threat?

In states with coastlines affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, top health officials are making efforts to protect beachgoers -- and at the same time urging the public to follow commonsense measures to keep themselves safe. States along the Gulf have been impacted unevenly so far, but all have made efforts to safeguard the public from possible health effects.

Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer for the Mississippi State Department of Health, said her state has instituted a beach monitoring program, an effort that is being run jointly with the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Marine Resources. As part of the effort, the state has trained workers to go out looking for oil; they have been trained in how to smell it.

Once oil is found, Currier said, the safety measures will go into effect.

"If there is visible oil on the water, we will close the beach to swimming," Currier said, adding that the state is also looking for cases of illness related to the spill in hospitals along the coast. Efforts are also under way to keep response activities standard between states, Currier said, including twice-weekly calls between the states to coordinate response.

Fortunately for her state, the impact of the spill on the coastlines has been relatively mild. The same cannot be said for Louisiana, which has borne the brunt of the spill's impact.

Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine said he is very concerned about the possible health effects from the dispersants that are being used to help ameliorate the spill. The gulf is home to a $4 billion seafood industry, he said, adding that he feels the use of dispersants -- particularly the way BP is pumping them underwater and not just on the surface -- has turned the gulf into "a giant Petri dish."

Meanwhile, Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Don Williamson noted that over the weekend, the state issued a strong advisory against swimming following a number of local reports of the presence of oil on the coast. The tar balls, he said, began showing up on the beaches early last week. As the week progressed more beaches saw effects from the oil evocatively termed "sheen" and "mousse."

As the oil moving towards more of the state's eastern beaches, Williamson said that he decided to issue the state-wide advisory out of an abundance of caution.

Keeping Away From Oil a Personal Matter, Too

In addition to coordinating state efforts, health officials urged the public to take safety into their own hands when on the beach.

Florida State Surgeon General Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros said her state is prepared to issue swimming advisories if oil sheen or mousse is detected on the water. For now, she said, there are tar balls. Florida has issued tar ball advisories -- in short, those who see tar balls should not touch them, as they can cause rashes and other problems.

It may seem like common sense. Yet, both Currier and Levine said dissuading people from activities such as swimming in water contaminated with oil is now a priority.

"[It is] abject stupidity to swim in water with visible oil," Levine said. "But," he added, "you can't legislate intelligence."

Tips to Limit Oil Spill Exposure

Fortunately, those who may be heading to the Gulf Coast can protect their health by adhering to a few simple tips:

Don't touch the tar balls: if you are cleaning them up, use nitrile gloves. Latex gloves are not sufficient.

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