— A Special Report from Victor Marchione, MD
Medical experts are now hard at work assessing the health of workers involved in the BP oil spill clean-up. The April 20 spill is the worst in U.S. history and oil is still pouring into the Gulf. Workers in boats are trying to skim, siphon and soak up the oil, and are trying desperately to delay its drift to shore.
The U.S. government has closed fisheries in contaminated areas. The oil is now washing up onto beaches and into fragile marshes. The workers who are struggling in the heat to clean up oil from the ruptured BP well are facing some pretty serious short-term health risks. According to medical experts, these risks include lung, liver, and kidney damage from fumes.
Scientists say that the oil itself is irritating, but not especially dangerous to touch or even swallow. Swallowing small amounts (less than a coffee cup) of oil will cause upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea, but is unlikely to have long-lasting health effects officials say. But experts warned that there could be significant short-term effects from fresh oil fumes.
For those near the oil spill, it would be wise to heed these warnings about health risks and stay away from beaches. For everyone else, the main concern (other than the devastation of the environment) is whether or not it is safe to eat fish and/or seafood.
On May 21, the Food and Drug Administration released a statement about fish and seafood consumption. The statement was intended to ease concerns about the safety of seafood being sold in stores. It said that crude oil does have the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, but maintained that the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time. However, as oil continues to gush out of the earth, this statement may be revised.
There is a wide variety of fish species in the federal waters of Gulf of Mexico, including red snapper, lane snapper, red drum, gray snapper, vermillion snapper, king and Spanish mackerel, gag grouper, spotted sea trout, cobia, and greater amberjack. The surface-oriented species will be most impacted by the early stages of the oil spill.
As the crude oil sinks, the bottom-oriented fish community will be affected. Juvenile red snapper, which represent one of the Gulf’s biggest exports, are common on mud bottoms.