As some 34,000 workers labor to contain the oozing oil surging in to the Gulf of Mexico, concerns over the potential health effects of the BP oil spill have mounted.
In a U.S Institute of Medicine panel led last week by Linda McCauley, dean of Emory University’s School of Nursing, McCauley expressed concern for the health of the clean-up workers and called for increased transparency from BP regarding safety precautions.
In the months following the April 20th spill, efforts to coordinate resources and organize health monitoring have been slow and reminiscent of post 9/11 efforts to access and monitor the health of emergency responders.
” Large gaps in the data” are making it difficult for scientists and health professionals to gather conclusive information on the health of spill workers. Many Institute of Medicine panel members shared McCauley’s concerns and called for the U.S government to fund a long-term effort to routinely monitor and track levels of toxin exposure amongst clean up and maintain coherent data.
While much is unknown about the long-term health effects of such a massive oil spill, the National Institute of Health has pledged $10 million towards the study of the public health impact of the spill. Gulf residents and cleanup workers have already experienced acute exposure symptoms including headache, nausea, throat irritation, eye pain, cough, and dizziness. Over 450 oil exposure complaints have been reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the majority concerning fume inhalation by cleanup workers.
Although spill workers are most likely to experience negative health consequences as a result of the spill, untrained cleanup volunteers and children also represent vulnerable populations. According to Irwin Redlener, member of the National Commission on Children and Disaster Preparedness, children are at an increased risk of health problems associated with ingestion, skin absorption, and inhalation of spill materials. Redlener also expressed concern for the psychological health of tGulf Coast children who may experience increased stress levels as a result of both 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill.
Kenneth Olden, dean of New York’s CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, cited cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages amongst the oil spill’s potential adverse human health effects. Although early data indicates the risk is low for pregnant women and their unborn babies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning to ” everyone, including pregnant women” to avoid spill-affected areas and cautions spill workers to wear proper protective gear and avoid working in extreme heat.
As efforts to contain the oil and clean up the spill continue, the lasting impact of our nation’s largest oil spill on human health is not yet estimable.