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

"Smoke from burning oil contains many chemicals; some are potentially-lethal poisons and some are nuisance irritants, but even these nuisance irritants can trigger breathing problems in people with asthma or emphysema or other lung disease," Casavant said. "The good news is that the further we are from the fire, the less dangerous is the smoke that reaches us, and the more likely that we'll have no symptoms or only just irritation -- runny itchy or burning eyes, scratchy or sore throat, or minor cough."

Thus far, White said, the smoke released from these efforts has not reached shore. "If they will do more burning, certainly we will watch to see where that smoke goes," she said.

Could Oil Spill Effects Linger in Seafood?

The oil slick is almost certain to have a devastating impact on the seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico -- a region from which 20 percent of all seafood in the U.S. originates. Environmental experts already expect harvests to be decimated, and many shrimpers have begun the shrimp season early in order to get to the seafood before the slick does.

The possibility of human illness from seafood contamination is of the chief concerns that White has heard from many people so far has been. But she said that even though the oil spill will have a huge effect on the industry, she does not believe the situation presents an immediate threat to those who consume seafood.

"There is not going to be fishing or shrimping in the area where the spill is, and there will probably not be much fish or shrimp in these areas currently," she said. White also said that unlike other chemicals, such as heavy metals and BPA, the chemicals that make up crude oil "usually do not bioaccumulate" -- that is, they do not linger in the tissues of animals and build up to a degree that they become toxic.

But Casavant said the potential for contamination still exists.

"Fish and seafood can be contaminated by the spilled oil," Casavant said. "Of those fish and seafood that survive, the main risk public health authorities worry about will be cancer.

"It's not that eating a contaminated shrimp or mussel causes cancer, but eating various amounts of some of the components of the oil increases one's chances of getting cancer."

For this reason, he said, it will be up to environmental agencies to be on the lookout for these chemicals -- possibly for years to come.

"Testing is needed; careful, repeated testing of both the water and the organisms," he said. "And from that testing the public health and fisheries authorities will make determinations of when it's acceptable to take which species from which areas."

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