The Next Oil Spill Crisis: Human Health — Is the Federal Government Ready?

“Each day it’s becoming more evident that BP’s oil spill… is not only an environmental and economic disaster, but a human health crisis as well,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

If the Federal Government wasn’t prepared for the oil spill, there’s no excuse for not preparing for the inevitable public health care issues that will emerge.

There are at least two concerns: direct exposure to toxins in the ground, water, and air — and indirect exposure through the food chain.

To the first, data from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (small by comparison) shows about 1/2 of clean-up workers visited health clinics. Symptoms presented included headaches, dizziness, respiratory issues, swelling and burning of the skin that comes from either breathing in oil fumes or direct contact. The oil contains toxins (carcinogens) such as benzene, toluene, mercury, and lead among other chemicals. In Louisiana, we’re hearing clean up workers are afraid to voice these symptoms for fear of losing the income from BP that replaced their former livelihood. However, the evidence is that these symptoms are presenting themselves.

Given that, its unconscounable that BP or any other organization would any have clean up personnel deployed without protective apparel as evidenced above on Saturday, May 22, 2010 on a beach at Grand Isle, LA. Further, the National Resources Defense Council states that BP was telling clean up personnel in a 4-hour preparation course that “weathered oil” is not hazardous to direct contact. Similar statements by BP were also reported by the LA Times which quotes a fisherman as saying BP had told him the oil was “not supposed to bother us”, and so he wasn’t wearing gloves. We are setting ourselves up for a number of potentially serious and costly health issues in these populations for the years to come. Will BP pay for those too? Doubt it.

To the second, the data is less clear. To begin even estimating the effects, scientists need to know the real amount of oil flowing (which has been understated repeatedly by BP), as well as how its dispersed and breaking down in order to understand the effect on living organisms. According to a number of scientists quoted by McClatchy Newspapers access to data from BP (and apparently OSHA) has been very hard to access. That doesn’t bode well for future public health analysis.

Further, beyond the oil itself, the process of clean-up can cause further damage to food ecosystem. Two fishermen quoted on NPR noted that chemical dispersants work by pushing the oil down to bottom of the ocean floor and cover sea life that’s fed on by fish and other sea life. In fact, they cause further damage to marine life because the oil gets into what they call the ‘water column’. They further noted the Gulf is one of two areas in the world that the Blue Fin Tuna (important to the tuna industry) spawn. The other is the Mediterranean.

We don’t know the real effects of oil on food and human health, and long-term studies of oil related damage on the animal and human food ecosystem are limited. But let’s not fool ourselves for reasons of regional economic necessity, or worse, let BP fool us for reasons of public relations, limiting liability or stock price.

The fact is that the oil spill now covers some 7,500 square miles (according to the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science), and that means a large area of the ocean ecosystem traditionally farmed by Gulf area fisherman has been effected. The chemicals in oil; mecury, lead, and benzene to name a few have been now ingested by sea life. How is that these wouldn’t be passed along to humans if we ingest the animals as food products? Its illogical to think otherwise.

The government has a solemn duty to protect public health, and that includes both the workers on site and the greater public that could be exposed through the food system. This is not a time for glib pronouncements — who could forget Christie Todd Whitman’s pronouncement after 9-11 that the air at “Ground Zero” was safe to breathe? We now know it wasn’t and the severe health issues of first responders years later proves that in stark detail.

The White House, EPA, OSHA, NOAA, USDA, CDC, NIH and other agencies involved in studying the long term health effects that will emerge from this crisis owe the public an objective analysis of the food ecosystem. And they owe it to Americans despite whatever political and economic pressures come from interest groups. The health and welfare of the public depends on it, and quite frankly, so does the government’s credibility.
John Theriault, Principal

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Gary Berg-Cross

I’ve seen some articles discussing the question of whethter we can survive the many ways humans are fouling the planet and particular diasaters for example

You may have also seen some articles on the dangers of methane release as part of this oil gusher in the gulf. See

John Theriault


Thanks for your comment. I’m aware of the dangers of Benzine having served on a non-profit board for a disease that is believed to be potentially caused by exposure to Benzine. I don’t know much about the others. I think this issues has been not received the focus it should in the mainstream media (networks, New York Times, Post, etc.)