Oil Slick's Human Health Risks Small, but Concerns Linger

People living in the coastal areas near the massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico likely have little to fear in terms of health effects, environmental health specialists say -- though it is likely that the scope of the ecological disaster will still worry many.

"I think that people get afraid about health effects when these events happen, and rightfully so," said LuAnn White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health and an expert who is currently working with the Louisiana state health department to assess the effects of the spill. "But what we see from oil spills is more ecological effects than human health effects."

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Still, some remain concerned over the impact that the spill could have on the safety of the seafood for which the Gulf Coast is famous.

The slick emanates from an underwater pipe fractured after a BP oil rig exploded and sunk on April 20. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 5,000 barrels a day are leaking from the resulting wreckage, and it is now believed that the total cost of the disaster could eclipse that incurred by the Exxon Valdez tanker spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

It is not the first time Louisiana has encountered an oil spill; in 2005, Hurricane Katrina dislodged a 250,000-barrel storage tank near New Orleans, which subsequently released oil into several residential areas. At that time, public health experts feared that residents could be exposed to gases called volatile compounds that emanate from oil and can be toxic and cancer-causing.

White said, however, that the fact that this spill is far from shore makes it highly unlikely that those on shore will be exposed to these gases.

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"This is happening in the middle of the Gulf, where there is nobody around," she said, adding that thus far, tests by the Environmental Protection Agency have turned up no evidence of dangerous airborne chemicals in coastal areas from the spill.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said that in addition to exposure to volatile compounds the health considerations that come along with an oil spill include skin rashes from direct contact with the oil, as well as the risk of ingesting the oil -- a risk he said is "probably greatest for small children who might intentionally or inadvertently swallow some of the oil."

But Dr. Marcel Casavant, chief of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said most will not be in situations in which they will be exposed to these dangers. The exception, he said, could be those who will be working to clean up the mess.

"People who have to work in this environment are likely to have bigger exposures and do have higher risks," he said. "Because the hazards are real and this training and protection are so important, those of us who aren't working with the spill or volunteers working with a group formally designated to help with rescue and cleanup should just stay away."

Meanwhile, one method that the U.S. Coast Guard has adopted to diminish the slick has been to burn off some of it -- an approach that has also released large amounts of smoke into the atmosphere.

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