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by Dr. Elaina George
It has been almost three months since the oil spill in the gulf. However, there has been little attention given to the health effects of exposure to the various components present in the spill or the chemical used to disperse the oil.
The contents of the oils spill contain several components. Each has the potential to cause health risks to those who are exposed to them. These are some facts of some of the most toxic substances:
Is an odorless liquid that has a somewhat sweet odor. It evaporates in air quickly and can dissolve into water. Therefore, it can be present in rain water carried distances and can have an effect on the ground a distance from the original source. Reports from the EPA have put the amount of Benzene measured near the Gulf of Mexico at 3,000-4,000 parts per billion (normal 0-4ppb). The EPA has set the minimum benzene exposure in drinking water at 5 ppb and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has placed safe exposure of benzene at 1part per million parts of workplace air for 8 hour shifts in a 40 hour work week. The EPA considers it a carcinogen at 1,000 ppb. Exposure to benzene vapors can cause a myriad of symptoms from headaches, nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness to rashes, respiratory difficulty. It has also been linked to leukemia and lymphoma. More Benzene Facts
2. Hydrogen Sulfide
This is a colorless flammable gas that is highly toxic that has a characteristic “rotten egg” odor. It is 20% heavier than air, and therefore will accumulate on the ground and in confined spaces. At concentrations above 100 ppm the olfactory nerve (the nerve that controls the sense of smell) is affected and the person can no longer detect the foul smell. However, if the person has a prolonged exposure to a low concentration the ability to detect the smell will also be lost. Exposure to the gas at low concentrations (0-10 ppm) can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. At moderate concentrations (10-50 ppm) it can cause headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting and cough. Respiratory difficulty; and at high concentrations (50-200 ppm) it can cause convulsions, coma and death. The EPA has measured the level of hydrogen sulfide gas in the gulf at 1000 ppm (the normal is 5-10 ppb).Most countries put a safe legal limit in the work environment of 10 ppm. In addition, protective equipment such as air respirators is mandated.
3. Methylene Chloride
Is a colorless liquid with a slightly sweet aroma. When it enters the body it is broken down into carbon monoxide. It can cause liver damage, respiratory depression, confusion, and headache. In those with heart problems it can exacerbate angina causing worsening chest pain. With chronic exposure it can cause bronchitis, problems with vision and balance problems. With prolonged contact with the skin it can cause burns. Because of its toxicity, its exposure has been limited in the workplace by OSHA . When released into the air methylene chloride has a half life of 30 days and can be carried to the ground when it rains. Studies have shown that it causes tumor formation and has been shown to cause spontaneous abortions in humans. When heated it forms hydrochloric acid, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and the highly toxic phosgene gas (which was used as a chemical weapon in WWII).
The chemical used to break up the oil is broken down into propylene glycol and sulfonic acid. In humans propylene glycol can cause eye and skin irritation (dermatitis), irritation of the respiratory tract and can exacerbate eczema. However, it has an even more toxic effect on marine life since it can kill the organisms that make oxygen thereby lowering the oxygen content in water . The nature of the sulfonic acid salt in the Corexit is unknown since the formula is proprietary. However, sulfonic acid can cause irritation of the mucous membranes (in the mouth) and skin irritation.
It is clear that the oil spill in the gulf is a toxic mixture that has the potential to not only destroy the ecosystem of the gulf, but to harm the short and long term health of both the residents of the gulf and people living in neighboring states who can be adversely affected by toxins carried in the jet stream and rain carried from the gulf. It makes one wonder how long it will be before we see a rise in illnesses from not only the workers and volunteers who are cleaning up the spill without proper protective equipment such as respirators and protective clothing, but also those in neighboring states . It also makes one wonder when the call for an evacuation of those on the front line will be ordered ….only time will tell.