June 7, 2010 -- Dozens in Louisiana have been hospitalized with health problems blamed on airborne toxic chemicals in the air a month after oil began to flood the Gulf of Mexico from a broken BP pipeline.
Those exposed to the growing oil spill include residents, cleanup workers and those providing relief aid. Thus far, 71 have been hospitalized due to oil spill related health problems, according to the Louisiana state health department. And while some say chemicals in the oil itself are to blame, others speculate chemicals called dispersants being used to break up the massive slick could be playing a role.
One local fisherman was evacuated by helicopter to West Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans from his boat after he reported feeling dizzy.
"I was feeling weak and I had high blood pressure," the fisherman, who did not want to be identified, told West Jefferson Medical employees in an interview videotaped by the hospital. "We thought it was maybe from the dispersant. We had other guys too that was feeling bad. He had aches and nauseated."
Doctors at West Jefferson Medical Center concluded the fisherman's symptoms suggested he was exposed to some kind of irritant and exposure. However, according to Dr. Robert Chugden, medical director for emergency services at West Jefferson Medical Center, it is difficult to tell whether the oil spill is in fact the culprit for many patients' symptoms.
"In all honesty they're working in a hot, muggy, high-humidity environment, so that alone can bring on these symptoms," said Chugden. "It's very hard to say what's going on. But having petroleum fumes surrounding you is not pleasant."
Many Factors of Oil Spill are Dangerous, Experts Say
Federal agencies including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, also report that many relief workers responding to the oil spill have been exposed to dangerous levels of airborne toxins.
Many experts say oil can do harm both through direct contact and airborne exposure to the chemicals. Many studies suggest that short-term exposure to oil can be linked to nausea, headache, dizziness, and eye and throat irritation, as well as both upper and lower respiratory tract symptoms.
When crude oil is exposed to air, it can turn into thick, sticky tar balls. Some people who come in contact with them may have allergic reactions to the chemicals. But in general, Chugden said, the thicker the oil, the less toxic it is.
However, according to Dr. Michael Harbut, director of the environmental cancer program at Wayne State University in Detroit, tar balls, though not as dangerous, may signal the presence of crude oil.
"While it's still pumping, you don't have any idea if you're looking at an isolated tarball, or a harbinger of more serious consequence," said Harbut. "Where there's a tar ball, there's a crude oil concentration not far behind."
Besides the danger of inhaling fumes emitted by oil, planned burning of petroleum can also be a health hazard, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA says tiny particles in the smoke can drift into the air downwind of the burn, and these particles can irritate the lungs of people with asthma and other lung diseases. Pregnant women, children and the very old can also be sensitive.
"The people that we see are reporting there's petroleum odor in the air, and it causes irritation or a sore throat," said Chugden. "We have not honestly seen serious pulmonary damage. All we've seen so far are symptomatic."
Health Risks of Dispersants Minimal, Experts say
Dispersants, chemicals that are sprayed onto oil slicks to speed the process of natural dispersion, are also thought by many to be potentially harmful. Dispersants are used to remove large amounts of certain oil types from the sea surface by breaking up the oil so that it is diluted in the water.
But not much is known about the long term risks of dispersants, since it is not used often, said Ronald Tjeerdeema, chair of the department of Environmental Toxicology at University of California, Davis. In general, Tjeerdeema said, dispersants pose a minimal health risk to the public, and may reduce the health risk associated with crude oil.
"When you disperse oil, you reduce the amount of volatile chemicals coming off the water from the oil and from the dispersant," said Tjeerdeema.
While not much is known about the health effects of exposure to dispersants or when dispersant chemicals are combined with the oil it is designed to break up, direct contact with crude oil, chemical inhalation, and possible air exposure to dispersants can be a fatal combination, Harbut said.
"You have the use of products which have not had their ingredients identified to the people they're getting sprayed on," said Harbut. "You have a known category of carcinogens -- petroleum distillates in the dispersant and carcinogens in the crude oil."
Although Gulf shores are popular for their beaches, area health departments advised beachgoers against swimming. Gulf states including Mississippi and Florida have recommended that residents stay out of water where they are able to see or smell oil. Alabama and Louisiana have issued swimming advisories, discouraging people from swimming in gulf waters, according to their respective state health departments.
However, according to Chugden, the real danger for many Gulf residents may extend beyond contact with oil in the water.
"Our concern is we're in hurricane season and it's going to aerosolize everything in the water," said Chugden. "And there will be micodroplets that everyone is going to inhale."
Long Term Health Implications
While there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that oil may contribute to chronic conditions, there are no long-term studies looking at the impact of oil exposure. Still, many experts suggest that while minor symptoms have been attributed to the oil spill so far, the future may hold more serious health problems.
"In the long haul, there is a significant worry in terms of the development of chronic conditions -- chronic asthma, chronic lung, and in some cases cancer," said Harbut. "I will not be surprised to see an increase in cancer."
NIOSH is conducting a voluntary survey to evaluate oil spill response workers' safety training, expected exposure, and use of personal protective equipment, the agency told ABC News. The agency also plans to track the health effects of the oil spill on response workers over time.
According to Chugden, even with low levels of exposure, over years, toxicity can build up in tissues such as the kidney and lungs.
"I think we haven't had enough time to understand health impacts of the spill here yet," said Chugden. "I think it's certainly too early to tell this spill's full health impact."