With no end in site to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, concerns about its potential health effects are mounting. Already, states along the Gulf Coast are increasing efforts to track symptoms among the public that might be related to exposure to oil fumes and chemical dispersants.
According to CNN, health officials in Louisiana are aware of 71 cases of oil spill-related illness. Fifty involved workers on oil rigs or people who participated in cleanup efforts, and 21 reports of illness came from the general public. Reported symptoms include throat irritation, cough, chest pain, headaches, and shortness of breath. Eight of those sickened – all fisherman working on cleanup efforts – were each hospitalized for about a day last month.
In Alabama, 15 cases of illness have been reported, CNN said. Ten involved respiratory problems, while five people complained of skin irritation. There have been no reports yet in other Gulf Coast states, but officials in Mississippi, Florida and Texas are monitoring the situation closely.
As weâ€™ve reported in the past, the symptoms reported in Louisiana and Alabama are typical when oil vapors are inhaled. According to the National Resources Defense Council, various components of crude oil, such as benzene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, presents risks. All are known carcinogens. Other components of oil, like mercury and lead, are also toxic.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Hospitals has warned cleanup workers to avoid skin contact, and oral cavity or nasal passage exposure to oil spill products. It has also cautioned people who are sensitive to the smells to stay inside with doors and windows closed and with air-conditioning running, and advised those with respiratory ailments like asthma to speak with their healthcare professional.
Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress are also paying attention to the spill’s potential health consequences. Today, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, announced that the panel will hold a hearing next Tuesday to examine the effects of the BP oil spill and its cleanup efforts on public health.
A press release from Harkin’s office pointed out that many of the workers that responded to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill suffered subsequent health problems, primarily for respiratory system damage. In addition, many of the exposed residents found that they were more likely to suffer from mental health issues, headaches, dermatitis, dizziness, and throat and respiratory problems.