The full human impact of the Gulf oil spill remains an unknown, but a number of public health officials and experts are voicing concerns about possible human health consequences.
Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said this week it has had 71 reported cases of oil spill-related illness, 50 of which were workers on oil rigs or those involved in cleanup efforts. Eight of those workers have been hospitalized.
"We are increasingly concerned about the provisions being made to protect the health and safety of those who are exposed to the oil and other elements associated with the spill," said Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana DHH and Peggy Hatch, secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Quality in an open letter to federal officials.
Thus far, federal agencies haven’t seen a spike in health problems from local residents. In a statement, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control said Friday: “Our surveillance reveals few complaints of respiratory symptoms, nausea, and headaches. Thus far, we have not discovered any public health concerns related to the oil spill.”
Workers have been instructed to wear protective gloves, clothing and goggles when working around the oil, and a filter mask if dealing with dispersants. Those workers that fell ill reported flu-like symptoms, throat irritation, shortness of breath, eye irritation, nausea, chest pain and headaches.
LuAnn White, director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Health, said most of the symptoms being reported are readily reversible. Nausea, headache and even rash caused by direct contact from the oil should go away relatively quickly.
But, White warned, the risk is greater for workers if they come into contact with oil near the spill site, before it has "weathered" in the sun and elements and some of the volatile compounds evaporate off.
"Workers who are out there where there still may be some volatiles in the crude, that is different exposure than people on the coast or even workers on the coast," White said. "The risk is minimal to residents on the shore"
The 21 cases reported by the general public in Louisiana were mostly due to odors from the oil, and many were people with existing respiratory disorders. Louisiana Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said in an e-mail that the oil odor is not dangerous to residents, but that if symptoms do not subside after going indoors, they should seek medical care.
Gulf state health departments have also advised residents to stay out of the water if they see oil, but White says by the time the oil reaches the shore its composition has changed and it poses little risk, especially tar balls, which she compared to coming in contact with asphalt.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said the agency will continue to monitor the health impact closely and has dispatched a mobile medical unit to Venice, La., to provide care for residents or responders.
Some experts on the issue are striking a concerned tone. Monitoring will be crucial in the coming months and years said Edward Trapido, the Wendell Gauthier Chair of Cancer Epidemiology at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, because the long-term health effects of a spill like this remain an unknown.
No one has ever done a longitudinal study of health impacts on workers or residents after previous oil spills, he said.
More than 6,700 workers involved in the Exxon Valdez clean up in 1989 suffered respiratory problems, but the company attributed the illness to a virus, not chemical poisoning, according to the Associated Press.
Only one worker successfully settled with Exxon on health issues, but the company did not admit fault.
Trapido, who testified Thursday for a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on the spill, is heading a research group at LSU that will look at a range of health effects, including psychiatric and behavioral effects, chronic diseases and cancers.
"Oil contains benzene … arsenic and other heavy metals, all of which are classified as class one carcinogens to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer," said Trapido.
With inherited susceptibility and under certain conditions, Trapido said "these exposures could hasten the onset of cancer," but that further long-term research is needed. The dispersants being used do not contain known carcinogens, Trapido said.
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a scientist with the health and environment program at the National Resource Defense Council, also warns that the chemicals can be incorporated into the food chain and be a long term threat in fish.
"They have the potential to accumulate in the food chain, so as you go higher and higher in the food chain, the amount of contanigen magnifies," Rotkin-Ellman said.
"It's almost two months from the spill, [and] we don’t have a solution in place that’s removed oil from the Gulf. So these are exposures that may occur over a long period of time."
The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring soil and air along the coast for pollutant levels, but White says so far none of the levels have increased to a point where evacuation would need to be considered.
CDC spokesperson Bernadette Burden said citizens concerned about health risks should monitor information from their state’s health department.
"If a person has concerns related to any of these symptoms … we encourage them to seek the help of their local health care provider," Burden said.