Progress on BP Spill Containment, But Is It Safe to Swim?

Progress on BP Spill Containment, But Is It Safe to Swim?Courtesy Sonja Daniel
Sonja Daniel is a Birmingham resident who travels to the beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama every summer to enjoy the sun and water. Sonja told ABC News today, she was at the Gulf Shores public beach yesterday when the fumes from the oil washing ashore were "so horrible" she became sickened by them. Sonja, like many in this area, was back to the beach today -- this time Sonja brought a gas mask with her - her way of enjoying the beach of Gulf Shores without breathing in what she calls "toxic air" from BP.

Despite the partial capping of the oil-spewing well in the Gulf, beachgoers will likely have to deal with oil on the shores well into the fall, leaving thousands of potential vacationers with one basic question: Is it safe to swim?

The health departments of three states have already issued swim advisories urging people to stay away from any waters "visibly affected by oil," and one health expert said swimmers should avoid oily water since the effects of the exposure to oil and dispersant aren't known at this point.

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"As a public health person, until you really know what the risks are, if you're seeing oil washing up on various beaches, taking the stance that you want to wait and understand the situation before letting people be exposed is really a good idea," Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News senior health and medical editor, said on "Good Morning America" today. "This is really an experiment going on. This is the first time people have been exposed to this oil mixed with dispersant. And so what the effect will be on people's breathing, on their skin, has yet to be seen."

State health departments in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have issued general swimming advisories, several expanding on the warnings to include entire stretches of beach. Florida has yet to issue any major advisories, despite at least one swimmer emerging from the water this weekend with tarballs visible on her legs.

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If swimmers do find themselves in oily water or stuck to tar balls, Besser said they need to scrub their bodies to wash the oil off using soap and water, baby oil, petroleum jelly or oil cleansers from auto parts stores.

CLICK HERE to check on the status of any advisories for individual beaches.

Top Gov't Official: 'It's an Insidious War'

BP announced Sunday that a containment cap placed on the ruptured well is collecting more than 10,000 barrels of oil a day, but the good news was quickly tempered by a somber Adm. Thad Allen, the government's top official on the oil response.

VIDEO: Alabama State Health Department advises people not to go into the water.Play
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"There will be oil out there for months to come," Allen said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "This will be well into the Fall. This is a siege across the entire gulf."

Allen explained on ABC News' "This Week" that despite the unprecedented clean-up efforts massive amounts of oil are still reaching the coast because "this spill is just aggregated over a 200-mile radius around the wellbore, where it's leaking right now, and it's not a monolithic spill. It is literally hundreds and thousands of smaller spills.

"And this is a war, it's an insidious war, because it's attacking, you know, four states one at a time, and it comes from different directions depending on the weather," he said.

VIDEO: Adm. Thad Allen on "This Week"Play

The next step, BP said, was to close the vents on the cap that are still allowing streams of oil to escape.

Inside a Bird De-Oiling Sanctuary

While humans may be deciding whether or not to hop in the ocean on their next vacation, hundreds of fish-eating birds aren't able to make the same choice and are washing up on beaches slathered in thick, brown oil.

ABC News was given an exclusive before-hours tour of a bird sanctuary in Fort Jackson, La., where nearly 300 birds have been scrubbed clean.

"I always say they're fondued," Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, said. "They look like they're dipped in it. And that's because they are. The reason for that is that they plunge into the oil to eat fish, they don't understand what the oil is, and they get covered in it."

VIDEO: Sens. Kerry and Cornyn on "This Week"Play

When the birds are rescued, they're brought into the sanctuary and placed in wooden crates together. To clean the birds, rescuers first soak them in vegetable oil that they can "work into the feathers and loosen the oil up," Holcomb said.

After the oil, comes a series of baths with diluted dish detergent which is rubbed all over the animals, sometimes using toothbrushes to protect the bird's eyes.

Then the birds are blow dried and placed in makeshift pools where they can bathe and preen themselves. Remarkably, rescuers said they grow new feathers and created a refurbished coat in a little more than a week.

One fear rescuers have, Holcomb said, is that when the birds are released at cleaner beaches in Florida, many of the older ones will migrate back to their oil-soaked hunting grounds.

VIDEO: Sens. Kerry and Cornyn on "This Week"Play

ABC News' David Muir, Emily Friedman and Jack Date contributed to this report.