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HSPH researchers advising government officials on public health effects from Gulf oil spill

July 9, 2010 — As BP’s ruptured Deepwater Horizon well continues gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, two HSPH researchers are sharing data and recommendations with government officials charged with managing the disaster. Robert Herrick, senior lecturer on industrial hygiene in the HSPH Department of Environmental Health, has joined a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory group reviewing plans for keeping cleanup workers safe from hazards associated with their activities, including exposures to harmful chemicals in the oil and dispersants, and injuries and illnesses. A department colleague, senior lecturer on aquatic chemistry James Shine, has advised Florida officials concerned about the health risks to the public of eating fish that have been swimming in oily waters.

Herrick describes challenging conditions for cleanup workers in the Gulf. Not only are they exposed to contaminants in oil that can be absorbed through the skin, they are also breathing in thick, sooty smoke from the oil burnoff. The workers’ use of protective gear has been good, Herrick says, but the equipment presents its own problems, such as risk of heat stroke from wearing the heavy, protective suits in the Gulf’s extreme heat and humidity. Workers are already complaining of skin irritation and respiratory problems, Herrick says, but the long-term consequences of the cleanup work are cause for even greater concern.

“Oil contains a mix of chemicals that are known or suspected of having chronic health effects, including cancer,” Herrick says. “These won’t be visible for five to ten years, which makes it critical that a registry of cleanup workers is created so that they can be tracked over time.” According to the CDC’s website, a voluntary registry of workers is under development. As of June 30, more than 26,000 workers have been registered.

How safe is Gulf seafood?

Shine hopes to see ongoing surveillance of marine life in the Gulf by government agencies. A key question for Shine is the long-term effect of dispersants. These chemicals help keep oil from floating to shore, but also pollute the water. Below the ocean’s surface, the oil and the dispersants get carried for miles by unpredictable currents. The chemicals in these products accumulate in the fatty tissues of marine life, but Shine isn’t worried about seafood safety yet.

Based on data from a previous study Shine did on mercury exposure from eating fish, Shine believes that recreational fishermen in the Gulf are probably a population particularly at risk. The average American seafood consumer doesn’t eat much fish caught in the Gulf, he says, so a blanket ban on seafood from the region is probably not necessary. But more study of the chemical concentrations found in the fish is needed before the risks can be accurately assessed.

When the oil well is capped and the immediate crisis recedes, scientists will still have a great deal of work ahead of them. “The ecological impact of the spill could be measurable for decades,” Shine says.

photo: iStockphoto/filo

— Amy Roeder