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Oil Spill Workers Prone to Health Problems Later On

Sep 18, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

People who help clean up huge oil spills face long-term health consequences down the road, says a new study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.   In the first study to ever investigate the health effects of oil spill cleanup, researchers found that volunteers and workers involved in the cleanup of the 2002 Prestige tanker oil spill off the coast of Spain where 1.7 times more likely to suffer respiratory illnesses than the general population.

It has been always suspected that oil spills cause long –term health problems for people affected by them.  People living in the zone of an oil spill are often plagued by problems of the nervous system, blood and kidneys long after a spill has been contained.   Crude oil contains numerous chemicals like benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have been linked to cancers and birth defects. And anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals involved in the cleanup of oil spills have reported skin and respiratory problems years later.  But no studies have previously been done on the long-term health consequences of oil spill cleanup.

When the oil tanker Prestige sank off the northwestern coast of Spain, spilling 67,000 gallons of oil, more than 10,000 workers and volunteers assisted in the cleanup.   Immediately after the spill, most of the work was done by fishermen and their families who did not use protective equipment.  More than two years after the spill, researchers at the Hospital Universitario 12 de Octubre, Madrid in Spain administered a questionnaire to about 7,000 people who had spent at least one day working on the oil spill cleanup to assess the long-term impact of their exposure on their health.  The questionnaire was administered in a variety of ways, including through telephone interview.

Men who participated in the cleanup where twice as likely to have had chronic cough or asthma in the past year, while women who had done the same were 1.7 more likely than others to experience such symptoms, and 1.6 times more likely to report nasal problems.  The researchers also found that the increased occurrence of respiratory problems lasted for more than a year after the cleanup.   Although rates did show some decline, the study found that the symptoms of respiratory illness where still significant more than 20 months later.

There researchers found no association between a worsening of pre-existing respiratory illnesses, like asthma, and oil spill cleanup.  They speculate that this is due to the fact that the Spanish health officials warned people with such conditions to avoid the oil spill. 

The authors of the report acknowledged that the questionnaire format of the study did leave it open to bias, and they plan on following a smaller cohort of subjects in order to reach firmer conclusions.   But based on their initial findings, they recommended that proper precautions be taken to protect workers involved in oil spill clean up.

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