Scientific review points to ongoing health problems for oil spill survivors

Residents and clean-up workers exposed to the 2010 BP Oil Spill Catastrophe may experience adverse health affects for many years to come, according to a recently released review. 
 “The Adverse Health Effects of Oil Spills: A Review of the Literature and a Framework for Medically Evaluating Exposed Individuals,” written by Barry S. Levy and William J. Nassetta, analyzed 13 studies of health effects among clean-up workers and community residents exposed to past spills.

The studies listed were conducted from 1993 to 2010, in Scotland, Wales, Japan, Spain, Pakistan, South Korea and Nigeria, and included over 4500 exposed individuals. Five of these studies included control subjects who were not exposed to oil spills. 

According to the report, “Symptoms that were significantly increased among those exposed in at least three of these studies arranged in order of decreasing frequency, were,

  • Respiratory symptoms, throat irritation, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, and runny nose.
  • Eye symptoms including eye irritation, sore, itchy, and/or reddened eyes
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness or Fatigue

“These studies found that clean-up workers and community residents who were exposed more intensively and/or for longer periods of time tended to have a higher frequency of symptoms,” the review explained.

Although citing that there has been minimal relative studies of the chronic health effects due to exposure during oil spills, it states that there has been, “thousands of studies in the medical and scientific literature on the chronic (as well as acute) health effects due to the constituents of oil, such as benzene and other organic solvents and PAHs.”

The report also contends that the majority of these studies have revolved around psychological disorders, with results pointing to an increase of generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

A study concerning 599 men and women affected by the 1989 Valdez spill, for example, concluded that exposed individuals were 2.9 times more likely to experience PTSD and 3.6 times more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder than that of the control group. 

The review goes on to explain that, “longer-term effects may also occur, with some individuals remaining symptomatic for as long as 14 years afterward.”

Respiratory illnesses and a decrease in lung function was also noted amongst the studies. For instance, after the 2002 oil tanker Prestige sank off the coast of Spain, a study conducted of 6,780 fishermen noted that, “lower respiratory tract symptoms decreased over time, but their prevalence was still increased 20 months after exposure.” 

Similarly, a 2003 study of the Tasman Spirit Oil Spill concluded that, “those who had been exposed to polluted air for periods longer than 15 days demonstrated a significant decrease in forced vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, forced expiratory flow and maximum voluntary ventilation.”

In addition, the review explains the genotoxicity, action on a cell’s genetic material affecting its integrity, and reproductive concerns as related by these studies.

Two separate studies conducted on the Prestige Spill found, “significantly greater DNA damage in the clean-up workers, which related to their duration of exposure.”

As for human reproduction, “The impact of oil on human reproduction is unclear,” the review annotates, “Cross-sectional and case-control studies have shown that petroleum hydrocarbons may increase the risk of spontaneous abortion in women and might cause poorer semen quality in men.”

The paper also notes the addition of oil spill dispersants as having the potential of being a point of short or long term adverse health effects. 

“There is incomplete understanding of the health effects as a result of exposure to: large amounts of dispersants mixed with crude oil; and dispersants mixed with combustion products,” the report reads, “health professionals need to consider the potential adverse health effects of the dispersants as well as the effect of the dispersants in diffusing oil throughout the water column.”

In the case of last year’s spill, at least 1.8 million gallons of dispersant were applied to an estimated 185 million gallons of crude oil.

And while a portion of Gulf coastal residents and clean-up workers continue to complain of symptoms including, headaches, respiratory issues, skin and eye irritations, memory loss and mental health issues, BP and the federal government have been largely silent as to their accusations that the spill and dispersants are to blame. 

In fact, Gulf Coast Claims Facilitator Kenneth Feinberg, concerning health compensation cases filed with the GCCF,  stated, “I see virtually no evidence of disability, they don’t have Social Security finding or a worker’s comp finding.” (Times-Picayune article, September 4, 2011)

Answers may be forthcoming, but will it be too late? 

According to the review, “The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was requested on May 28, 2010, to perform a health hazard evaluation of the workers who responded to the Deepwater Horizon spill.”

“Nine interim reports have been issued with many important findings… For example, review of onshore infirmary logs demonstrated that most visits were for upper-respiratory complaints… It is anticipated that NIOSH will be producing a final report in the near future that integrated all of its findings.”

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) will be conducting it’s ten year study of 55,000 clean-up workers, “in order to evaluate health outcomes, including respiratory, neurobehavioral, carcinogenic, immunological and mental health concerns,” the review adds.

Although the review does lay out a bare bones description as to evaluating individuals exposed to oil spills, including obtaining a comprehensive medical history, performing a physical examination and laboratory tests, the conclusion of the report points to the government for final evaluation of health concerns from the Gulf spill.

“We have yet to learn the full extent of the adverse affects of this spill. The final NIOSH report and the NIEHS longitudinal study will provide additional detailed information that will enable better preparation for- and better response to - future spills,” the review concludes.

Unfortunately, waiting for those reports to come out may provide little hope for quick answers to those along the Gulf Coast now dealing with health concerns.

Cherri Foytlin is an oil worker's wife, mother of six, Louisiana resident and journalist whose family has been deeply impacted by the BP Oil Disaster and consequential moratorium on deep water drilling. She co-founded Gulf Change, blogs for, and walked to Washington D.C. from New Orleans (1,243 miles) to call for action to stop the BP oil disaster.  She has been a constant voice, speaking out to the Obama Administration's Gulf Oil Spill Commission, and in countless forms of media.  Cherri will continue her fight for the industries, people, culture and wildlife of south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast "until we are made whole again."