For the past several weeks, I’ve been taking Arkansas Earth Institute’s A World of Health discussion course. It explores the connections between human health and the environment, and how we can sustain both. I’ve been reading all about chemicals in our environment, so when Tara with An Apple a Day approached me about a possible guest post, I asked her for one on the health implications of the Gulf oil disaster.
I know many of my readers have been concerned about the Gulf oil spill and its impact on the environment and health. I have been, too, especially since I work for an organization that protects birds, widlife, and their habitats. I hope you find this post as insightful as I did.
The Health Implications of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
The oil spilled that occurred on April 20, 2010, produced disastrous consequences for the marine environment, but we have only begun to realize what adverse effects that spill will have on human health. When a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well of the rig and ignited, many dangerous toxicants were released into our environment. These include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and organic solvents. Although we can speculate, we have yet to find out the exact implications these compounds have for human health. Of course, oil spill workers will experience the most severe health effects associated with these toxicants because they have the greatest exposure, however it is important to know that much larger population is also at risk for health damage.
Volatile Organic Compunds (VOCs) – Benzene
Benzene can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, ingested, or may come into contact with the eyes. It is so dangerous because in addition to being toxic, it is also known as a carcinogen that can lead to leukemia. Benzene has been reported to cause oxidative DNA damage in factory workers exposed to medium concentrations (40-200mg/m3). Some oil spill workers are exposed to even greater concentrations than this, so it is scary to think what health consequences these workers may face.
Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
PAHs have also been identified by the EPA as carcinogenic to humans. Humans can become exposed to PAHs by inhaling them directly or eating PAH-infected marine life. Oysters are of a particular concern with many oyster reefs having been polluted in the Louisiana and Mississippi regions. There is no telling how long it will take before seafood of this region, such as oysters, is safe again to consume. Both oil spill workers and the residents of the area where the oil spill occurred are at risk for PAH inhalation.
Organic Solvent – Toluene
When spilled, this colorless liquid can easily seep into the soil and nearby surface or groundwater. Humans then ingest toluene when they drink this contaminated water, inhale the evaporated liquid, or absorb the liquid through their skin. Humans react similarly to toluene as they do to alcohol. Low levels of exposure affect the central nervous system, causing weakness, confusion, tiredness, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, hearing loss, and color vision loss. At higher exposures to toluene, people experience severe nervousness, lack of emotional control, muscular fatigue, loss of consciousness, and even death. Depending on the route of exposure, the severity of reactions to toluene will vary. Moreover, chronic exposure to toluene has been associated with anemia, decreased blood cell count, bone marrow hypoplasia, liver and kidney damage, and dermatitis. Toluene has even been found to damage unborn fetuses. When an expecting mother is exposed to toluene, her child may experience birth defects, mental retardation, and/or stunted growth.
The Gulf Oil Spill is an unfortunate reminder of how human carelessness can essentially ruin a piece of our environment. Not only did the contaminants released into the environment have adverse implications for the health of humans, but they damaged and killed much of the surrounding marine life as well. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not the first of its kind, and sadly will not be the last, but as a human race we must learn from this event to possibly prevent a spill of such magnitude from happening again.
For more information concerning our common Mother Earth, please visit Environmental Education Resources.