The unforgettable pictures of waterfowl blackened with gooey oil have come to symbolize BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As America’s worst-ever ecological disaster enters its second month it’s not hard to imagine how this spill is affecting life. The evidence is visible all along the Gulf coast.
The tar balls washing onto white sandy shores, orange blankets of chemicals floating on a sea of blue and the worried faces of residents are all evidence of the present disaster. But when the crude oil stops flowing, will the clean up efforts erase the potential health effects of the disaster?
Bonsup Cho, a biomedical scientist at the University of Rhode Island has been studying the effects of environmental toxins for nearly two decades. He knows the gooey tar balls washing onto coastal beaches and into marshes contain the same cancer-causing chemicals found in diesel fumes and cigarette smoke.
“You also have to wonder about the fate of the crude oil that has not come ashore or been recovered and what long term effects such toxins will have on the food chain," Cho said in a written statement. "The pollutants from these toxins are going to be there for a long time.”
Cho says the tar balls contain a lot of toxins, such as the non-volatile organic compounds benzopyrene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons; all are known human carcinogens used as biomarkers to detect human exposure to toxins. A carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance, can cause DNA mutations and birth defects.
Crude oil also contains volatile organic compound (VOCs) saturated hydrocarbons, such as methane, hexane and octane. These chemicals can cause acute health effects such as respiratory problems, headache, nausea, vomiting, coughing and dizziness, said Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with Natural Resources Defense Council.
But it’s the non-volatile chemicals found in the tar balls washing onto shore that are considered the most dangerous if ingested or people come into physical contact with them.