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Congenital Heart Disease Possible Oil Spill Side Effect

May 2, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

A new study is shedding more light on the types of health ailments that might plague victims of the BP oil spill in years to come.  The study found that children expose in utero to crude oil chemicals may face an increased risk of congenital heart disease (CHD).

"Congenital heart disease is a major cause of childhood death and life-long health problems,"  D. Gail McCarver, MD, FAAP, lead author of the study and professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children's Research Institute, Milwaukee, said in a statement announcing its findings. "Thus, identifying risk factors contributing to CHD is important to public health."

For this study, Dr. McCarver and her fellow researchers tested samples of meconium, or fetal stool, from 135 newborns with CHD and 432 newborns without CHD. Infants with chromosomal abnormalities known to be linked to CHD, and babies of diabetic mothers were excluded from the study.  Seventeen compounds were measured in meconium samples using methods that detect very low levels of chemicals.

Among white infants, fetal exposure to ethyl benzene was associated with a four-fold increased risk of CHD. Benzene was not found to be associated with CHD in black infants. There are over 200 chemicals in oil, many of which are toxic, including the carcinogen benzene.

"This is the first report that exposure to ethyl benzene, a compound present in crude oil, was associated with CHD," Dr. McCarver said. Humans also can be exposed to ethyl benzene through inhalation of motor vehicle emissions, gasoline pump vapors and cigarette smoke.

"The association with ethyl benzene exposure is concerning, particularly considering recent oil spills," she said. "However, additional confirmatory studies are needed."

In another interesting finding from the study, exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) was associated with a two-fold increased risk for CHD among white infants and an eight-fold increased risk among black infants.  TCE is a commonly used degreasing agent, which also is present in many cleaners and spot removers. TCE also has been the most common chemical identified around hazardous waste sites.

The BP oil spill disaster resulted in 200 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. During the cleanup, more than a million gallons of oil dispersants were used with unknown health consequences, something that hadn’t occurred in previous oil spills. Last month, a review published in The New England Journal of Medicine considered these hazards in trying to ascertain what health problems might plague Gulf Coast residents and BP oil spill cleanup workers.

The review found that the likelihood of serious long-term problems from components of the oil is low for residents and onshore cleanup workers. But the review authors expressed concern about the cleanup workers who operated offshore, who would have been more directly exposed to crude oil and dispersants, as well as children. There haven’t been many studies conducted on people who have worked in such conditions, according to the review. Likewise, there is also little data assessing the effect of oil spill exposure on children.

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