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Q&A PART 2: Gulf Coast Oil Spill and Your Health - Who's at Risk?

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I continue today with Part 2 of my Q&A about oil spill health concerns with a look at different groups of people who are at a particular risk to health impacts associated with the oil spill.

In my next post, I’ll address health tips for people working on the clean-up. And you can find answers to basic background questions in my first post here.

How do you think the health of local communities around the gulf will be impacted from the oil?

The petroleum vapors and mists can cause a variety of immediate health effects. There are also long-term health concerns because some of the contaminants from the oil (such as heavy metals and PAHs) will remain for a long time in the sediments and accumulate in the food chain. Contamination in fish and shellfish – for many years into the future – may pose a significant risk of cancer and other health effects.

Have you had any reports that the oil is making people sick?

We have been hearing some reports from people along the coast that are noticing the smell of oil. Some people have been complaining of headaches, nausea, cough, and throat irritation. We are collecting reports of health problems.

The Louisiana Department of Health is setting up shelters for those impacted by the air emissions. What do you know about the quality of the air and how it would possibly affect people?

People with underlying respiratory disease, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or even asthma, are at especially high risk of exacerbation from the vapors and aerosols. Petroleum is very irritating to the airways. At high doses (such as might be experienced by workers), it can cause a chemical pneumonia known as “hydrocarbon pneumonia”.

Are there risks to the fishermen and volunteers who are working to clean up the oil and rescue wildlife?

These are the people I’m most worried about. They are getting the highest exposures and they need adequate protection. BP should provide these workers with adequate equipment – but we’ve heard from people on the ground that they might not be getting this protection. In the meantime, volunteers at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network are providing respirators, impermeable gloves, and arm protectors for workers. We’re still dealing with illnesses in the first responders and cleanup workers at the World Trade Center. It is a big mistake to put our first responders and clean up workers at risk again.

Are there risks to pregnant women?

Some of the volatile chemicals in oil have been linked to miscarriage, low birth weight, and preterm birth, so it is a good idea for pregnant women to avoid the areas where there are high levels of VOCs in the air. That means areas where there is a noticeable smell of oil, and also any areas where the EPA monitoring system detects elevated levels. The EPA results are being updated regularly at

What about risks to children?

Young children should not be allowed near the beach where they could come into direct contact with the oil. Other than this, recommendations for children are the same as for adults.

What about risks to pets?

Pets should not be allowed on the beach in any areas where they could come into direct contact with the oil.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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