DESTIN — The oil is inescapable to the people of the Gulf Coast. Clean-up workers burn it at sea, skim it in boats. Residents smell its sheen, pick up its puddles and tar balls with shovels. Tourists sometimes let their kids swim in it.
What is the oil doing to human health? What about the chemicals used to disperse it?
Health officials don’t know. They say they haven’t done the studies.
Even Jimmy Guidry, director of the Louisiana Department of Health, who says 108 workers and 35 residents have reported ailments they believe are related to oil or dispersants, admits he can’t prove the connection.
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“It’s hard to understand if nausea or dizziness or headache is related to the oil or to working in 100-degree heat in a [protective] suit,’’ he said.
The lack of certainty led the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to hastily convene a symposium of experts in New Orleans on Tuesday and Wednesday seeking better understanding.
“Some scientists say there’s little or no toxicity from the oil,’’ U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin told the group. “Others express serious concerns.’’
So far, most health problems among oil spill workers have been relatively mild, involving heat stress, respiratory problems, headaches and throat irritations, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lisa Kaplowitz told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week.
Since then, 11 oil spill workers have been hospitalized briefly with nausea, dizziness and chest pains amid debate over whether they were caused by a cleaning chemical for docks, the oil dispersant Corexit, heat and fatigue or a combination. Federal officials are still investigating.
The oil doesn’t bother Jamie Clayton, of Atlanta. She brought her husband, Cameron, their 3 1/2-year-year-old son, Colby, and 17-month-old daughter, Lottie, to the beaches at Seaside in Florida’s Walton County this week despite local tar ball sightings.
“We were actually picking it up and touching it to see how it felt. It didn’t seem like a big deal,’’ she said.
And when her children emerged from the surf with light brown tar specks on their feet, she stayed cool: “Honestly, it wasn’t anything a baby wipe couldn’t get rid of. If it was really dangerous, I’m sure they would have posted a health advisory.’’
In Louisiana, Guidry’s department is posting advisories warning residents not to touch the oil in any form. One says: “Skin contact with oil may cause irritation.
Oil particles in the air may also cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Wash skin thoroughly with soap and water if you get oil on skin.’’
But the experts in New Orleans only underlined the lack of certainty about health effects of the oil.
“We have very scant information about oil spills from a few studies of oil tankers that have run aground,’’ said John Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Workers nearest the spill, burning the oil at sea, operating skimming boats, have the greatest exposure.
“Close to the plume, where vessels are working in fresh crude, the volatile compounds are not totally gone, including methane, vapors and concentrated dispersants,’’ Howard said.
And exposure to irritants such as hydrocarbons îîcan have very serious effects.
“Carcinogens may be present,’’ said Scott Barnhart, professor of medicine at University of Washington.
By the time sheen, puddles or tar balls reach shore, more than 50 percent of the oil has evaporated. The remaining, weathered oil contains some, but fewer, toxins, noted Edward Overton, professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University.
Most residents who have breathed fumes from oil near the shore have suffered nothing worse than dizziness, nausea and vomiting, Kaplowitz said. And Guidry, Louisiana’s health department director, said hospital reports so far show no increase in asthma or other respiratory ailments.
The safety of the dispersant, Corexit, that BP is using to break up the oil and keep it from reaching shores, also is being debated by experts. Several clean-up workers have said they developed nausea, dizziness and throat irritation from Corexit, but state and federal officials said they couldn’t prove the dispersant was the cause.
On May 20, the EPA, which earlier had approved BP’s use of Corexit, ordered BP to find a less toxic substitute. BP wrote back that it would continue using Corexit: “Corexit appears to have fewer long-term effects than the other dispersants evaluated.’’
Nalco, the dispersant’s manufacturer, said on its website that Corexit falls within EPA toxicity guidelines: îîAll of the ingredients are safe and found in common household products such as food, hand and body lotion, packaging, cosmetics and household
The EPA countered by ordering BP to stop spraying any dispersant on the surface of Gulf waters, and limited it to 15,000 gallons a day underwater, near the spewing, blown-out well … effectively cutting its use by 75 percent.
Long-term effects of oil exposure are even less well-understood than the immediate concerns, experts said.
“How do you separate today’s oil in the environment from genetics, lifestyle choices and ongoing stresses if something happens 20 years from now?’’ asked Guidry.
There are hints of trouble.
Studies of intense, long-term exposure to heavy crude oil have shown an association with peripheral neuropathy, or damage to nerves in feet and hands, said Peter Spencer, professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University.
“But that’s very different from the oil in the Gulf,’’ which is lighter, he said.
One chilling note at the New Orleans symposium was the discussion of a Spanish study after the Prestige oil tanker spill of 2002, which left more than 100,000 tons of oil on the North Atlantic coast of Galicia. The study said volunteers cleaning birds and rocky
shores experienced damage to their DNA.
The damage tended to repair itself over time, and did not turn into health-threatening alterations of their chromosomes, said Blanca Laffon, a toxicologist at Spain’s University of A Coruna. Protective suits and masks did only marginal good, perhaps because the
volunteers were not properly instructed in how to wear them, she said.
Still, the DNA damage worried government officials. And National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins last week set aside $10 million for more research into the Spanish incident.
Psychologically, Gulf Coast residents have been holding up relatively well, officials said. But Thursday, CNN and other news outlets reported that the captain of an Alabama fishing boat had committed suicide, and friends said he was despondent about losing his
way of life because of the oil spill.
So far, Gulf Coast area crisis hot lines have not shown significant increases in calls, said Kaplowitz, of HHS.
Even before the suicide, worry had been growing.
“You have fisherman stressed out about being out of work,’’ said Becky Davidson, a lifelong Okaloosa County resident. “You have people like me, who have been coming to these beaches our whole life. It’s scary to think that may change.’’
Long-term, psychological problems could be a problem, said Lawrence Palinkas, professor of social policy at University of Southern California. He took part in a study of 22 Alaskan communities a year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“There were increased rates of drinking, drug use, fighting among family and friends, declines in social relationships,’’ he said.
Children in particular must be kept away from toxic oil and protected against the stresses of the spill, said Irwin Redlener, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.
“Children are not little adults,’’ he said. “They live and breathe closer to the ground where toxins can be heavier. Their respiration rates are more rapid, so they concentrate it more. They take risks. Toddlers put everything in their mouths.’’
— McClatchy News Service contributed to this report._