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Leaked oil could cause long-term health woes

Researchers urge vigilance in gulf

By Michelle Fay Cortez
Bloomberg News / August 17, 2010

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MINNEAPOLIS — Gulf Coast residents and crews cleaning up some of the 206 million gallons of oil that gushed into the gulf from a broken BP wellhead may suffer long-term health problems, including breathing difficulties, skin ailments, mental health effects, and cancer, researchers said.

Doctors should watch for symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, respiratory trouble, and chest pain, said investigators from the University of California, San Francisco, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Physicians should ask where their patients live and work to determine their potential health risk, the researchers said.

“Health care providers need to know what to look for and what to focus on when they see folks from the Gulf Coast,’’ said Gina Solomon, director of the university’s occupational environmental medicine residency program. “The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is well known as an ecological disaster. What is less known is the risk to human health caused by oil contamination.’’

The researchers examined the components of crude oil, the chemicals used to disperse it, and the compounds created when it is burned away. Their findings were released yesterday by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Residents, volunteers, and workers should not fish in off-limits areas, eat fish with an oily smell, or touch contaminated water or tar balls, Solomon said in a telephone interview. Solomon, who spent several weeks in the region evaluating the risks, said protective equipment and common sense are needed.

Cleanup of the oil that gushed into the water from BP’s Macondo well after an April 20 explosion is still under way in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida’s panhandle. No oil has flowed from the plugged well since July 15.

More than 300 people, mainly cleanup workers, needed medical care in the initial days after the spill, the researchers said. The air quality has improved in recent weeks, Solomon said, and the existing lung problems may not become chronic complaints.

The extent of the danger isn’t known because the long-term health consequences from previous spills haven’t been documented, she said.

“There is really pathetically insufficient information in the scientific literature about previous oil spills,’’ she said. “This time it’s going to be important to do it right and do the follow-up studies of health issues, so we know what can be attributed to this spill.’’

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