We are heading into the summer season and British Petroleum’s oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico is still gushing. Thus, vacationers in the vicinity with liver disease should be aware of potential oil-related risks to their health.
As we get closer to the start of summer, thousands of Americans will be deciding whether or not to enjoy their yearly vacation at one of the notoriously beautiful spots on the Gulf Coast. A direct consequence of British Petroleum’s (BP’s) catastrophic oil disaster, the possibility of a holiday riddled with exposure to toxins is of particular concern to individuals with liver disease.
The damage from BP’s explosion on April 20, 2010 extends far beyond the deaths of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. While some experts estimate 45 million gallons of crude has already spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, there is no way to know for sure how much more will end up in Gulf water and on nearby beaches. Besides the hazards associated with the actual oil, health advocates are growing increasingly concerned about the chemicals released in the ocean to dissolve the oil slicks.
Oil and tarballs are surfacing on beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, making beachgoers wary of how toxic the sludge might be. In recent days, a substantial number of animals have turned up covered in oil, dead or severely affected by the spill. Thus, there is no question that marine life is suffering the consequences of the millions of barrels of crude spewing from the ocean floor. Disturbing as the images of oil-covered animals are, many are wondering if contact with the oil will hurt humans too.
Several officials have spoken up about the low danger level of oil exposure. However, calculations for people with liver disease have been skipped over. Since at least a quarter of American adults have some type of liver ailment (the majority being chronic Hepatitis C infection or fatty liver disease), the effect of this spill on liver health is very important. Because one of the liver’s main roles is to filter out toxins in the body’s bloodstream, a chronic liver problem impedes its filtering ability. Thus, those with liver disease usually have a harder time filtering out toxins – resulting in greater quantities of toxins left to circulate and cause bodily harm.
Suffering from flu-like symptoms after patrolling the waters off Gulf Coast beaches, at least 11 oil spill response workers reportedly have become sick in the first week of June. However, response workers are near higher concentrations of oil and chemical dispersants than the general public. In comparison, health officials proclaim that risks to people on land is much smaller. According to Doc Kokol, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, “Limited contact (with oil or tarballs) is not something that needs to be treated by a physician.”
The good news is that the type of oil involved in this spill is medium sweet crude. Containing fewer toxic sulfur compounds and chemicals that easily enter the air, medium sweet crude is considered to be less hazardous than other forms of oil. Regardless, oil is toxic. According to Niladri Basu, a University of Michigan environmental toxicologist, small oil exposure may cause fleeting symptoms, but significant exposure can cause problems with breathing, thinking, coordination and potentially raise the risk of cancer. If a trip to the Gulf Coast is on your to do list, officials suggest the following:
· Children are more sensitive to pollution than adults, so parents should watch for rashes on their skin or dark sticky spots that are hard to wash off. Since people with liver disease are also more sensitive to pollution, this advice should also apply.
· Long-lasting skin contact with crude oil can cause skin to redden, swell and burn. The problem can get worse if the skin is exposed to the sun. Those with liver disease should heed this warning – if oil contacts the skin, stay out of the sun.
· Oil on bare skin should be washed off as soon as possible. Call the local poison control center if a rash or other problem develops. Soap and water, baby oil or petroleum jelly are the best products to remove oil. Avoid using kerosene or gasoline. People with liver disease should be extra cautious about oil on their skin.
· Swallowing small amounts of oil – less than a coffee cup – can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but is not likely to have long-lasting effects. Since ingestion of crude must be filtered out by the liver, those with liver disease should consult a knowledgeable health professional if any oil is accidentally swallowed.
The chemicals BP is relying on to break up the steady flow of leaking oil presents an additional reason for concern. Referred to simply as dispersants, the goal of these chemicals is to break down the oil and prevent it from hitting land. The exact makeup of the dispersants is kept secret under competitive trade laws, but sources reveal that it includes a dispersant known as Corexit.
A version of Corexit was widely used after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. According to a literature review performed by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Corexit was later linked with respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders in humans. Although officials insist that the dispersants used today are less toxic than those used a decade ago, skepticism about BP’s dispersants on liver health persists.
The two versions of Corexit [Corexit 9500 and Corexit(R) EC9527A] believed to be in BP’s secret formula both contain 2-butoxyethanol, a substance known to cause headaches, vomiting and reproductive problems at high doses. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, one of these substances may:
· Cause moderate irritation and be harmful if absorbed through skin.
· Be harmful if swallowed, causing liver and kidney effects and/or damage. There may be irritation to the gastro-intestinal tract.
· Cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects from excessive exposure.
· Cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver from repeated or excessive exposure.
It is easy to recognize BP’s underwater oil fountain as an environmental catastrophe, but human health is likely to be affected as well. Because of the dangers that both crude oil and chemical dispersants may pose to the liver, people with chronic liver disease are urged to take additional precautions if visiting the Gulf Coast this summer.
http://emergency.cdc.gov/chemical/2010gulfoilspill/cdcresponds.asp, CDC Responds to the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Retrieved June 6, 2010, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2010.
http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/05/toxic-soup-gulf, Is the BP Clean-Up Creating A Toxic Soup in the Gulf?, Kate Sheppard, Retrieved June 6, 2010, Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 2010.
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100603/ap_on_he_me/us_med_oil_spill_beach_advice, Wash off tarballs, but brief encounters not risky, Retrieved June 5, 2010, Yahoo! Inc., 2010.
http://www.propublica.org/article/bp-gulf-oil-spill-dispersants-0430, Chemicals Meant To Break Up BP Oil Spill Present New Environmental Concerns, Abrahm Lustgarten, Retrieved June 6, 2010, Pro Publica Inc, 2010.