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Health impact of Gulf Coast oil spill hazardous: researchers

08-17-2010 08:37 BJT

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- The oil spill along the U.S. Gulf Coast still poses health risks to volunteers, fishermen, clean-up workers and members of coastal communities, researchers said on Monday.

"The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is well known as an ecological disaster, but what is less known is the risk to human health caused by oil contamination," said Gina Solomon, a researcher at the University of California in San Franscisco (UCSF) .

"We want to reach the volunteers, clean-up workers, fishermen, medical specialists and community members with practical information about the impact to their health from these chemicals. With correct information, we hope they can protect themselves and seek treatment if they don't feel well," Solomon said in a commentary published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Solomon is director of UCSF's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency and Fellowship Program and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco.

According to the commentary, UCSF researchers spent time in the region and are among the first to look into health problems caused by the oil spill.

The good news, the researchers said, is that one of the risk factors, coastal air quality, is improving now that the oil leak has been stopped.

The goal of the article is to inform physicians and coastal communities about the immediate and long-term health risks posed by toxic vapors, oil slicks, tar balls and contaminated seafood, the researchers said.

The authors advised that community members should protect themselves and seek treatment if symptoms from oil contamination occur.

Air quality, skin irritation, mental health and seafood safety are the primary areas of short and long term health concerns, according to the authors.

The article cites health information collected from previous oil spills in Alaska, Spain, Korea and Wales, which report an increase in health effects such as respiratory problems, DNA alterations, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological stress and self-reported neurological impairment in workers and local residents.

In the early months of the Gulf oil spill, more than 300 individuals, most of whom were cleanup workers, sought medical attention for headaches, dizziness, nausea, chest pain, vomiting, cough and respiratory distress that might be consistent with chemical exposure, according to data collected by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

"Louisiana is making an effort to track health complaints," said Solomon. "But it is important to remember that these 300 reported cases are only from one state and only within a few months. The Gulf Coast is a large region with many coastal communities, and it is imperative that we do whatever we can to help everyone impacted by this disaster."

To protect coastal community members from exposure to chemicals caused by the oil spill or its dispersants, the researchers advise the following measures:

-- Workers may need protective equipment such as hats, gloves, boots, coveralls, safety goggles, and even respirators in some areas;

-- Workers need to take breaks and drink ample fluids to prevent heat-related illness;

-- Avoid skin contact with tar or oil on beaches, marshland or in the water;

-- Do not fish in areas of known oil contamination or where there is visible oil;

-- Do not eat seafood that smells oily or strange;

-- If there is a strong smell of oil outside and it makes you feel ill, go inside and adjust the air conditioner to recirculate air; and

-- If feeling persistently ill, seek medical attention so your symptoms can be assessed and reported.

Editor:Jin Lin |Source: Xinhua

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