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.
A study analyzing the blood of individuals who worked on the Exxon Valdez cleanup following the spill in March 1989 found DNA damage in those subjects. “DNA damage in certain functionally important areas of the genome can be a precursor to various human cancers," Cho said.
Like Cho, Robert Emery, vice president for health and environmental risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston also worries about the immediate and long-term effects of the spill.
“There are three things going on: first, the health and safety issues related to those most intimately exposed, the potential exposure of the general public, and the potential contamination of the food supply,” Emery told HealthDay News.
Adding to the complexity of the spill is the orange sheen pictures have shown floating on the gulf—the result of a chemical reaction between the millions of barrels of crude oil, millions of gallons of chemical dispersants and the sun.
Environmental and health advocacy groups says no one knows just how toxic the orange soup is or what chemicals it contains because the total chemical makeup of the dispersants is considered a trade secret.
Chemical dispersants are known to be toxic if used in the wrong concentration. For example, the solvent used after the Exxon Valdez disaster was limonene, which can cause skin inflammation and asthma, Emery said. On May 26, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered BP to reduce the amount of dispersants it was using in the gulf by 75 percent.
In May 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel, a federal panel that monitors and assesses the National Cancer Program, issued an alarming annual report about “grievous harm” caused by synthetic chemicals and asserts the number of cancer cases they are responsible for has been “grossly underestimated.” The report, which focuses on reducing environmental cancer risks, points out that Americans are constantly exposed to some 80,000 chemicals, most of which we know only a little about. It further states that 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale,Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events