DESTIN — The oil is inescapable to the people of the Gulf Coast. Cleanup workers burn it at sea, skim it in boats. Residents smell its sheen, pick up its puddles and tar balls with shovels. Tourists sometimes let their kids swim in it.
What is the oil doing to human health? What about the chemicals used to disperse it?
Health officials don't know. They haven't done the studies.
Jimmy Guidry, director of the Louisiana Health Department, says 108 workers and 35 residents have reported ailments they believe are related to oil or dispersants. But he admits he can't prove the connection.
"It's hard to understand if nausea or dizziness or headache is related to the oil or to working in 100-degree heat in a (protective) suit," he said.
The lack of certainty led the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to hastily convene a symposium of experts in New Orleans last week seeking better understanding.
"Some scientists say there's little or no toxicity from the oil," U.S. Surgeon Gen. Regina Benjamin told the group. "Others express serious concerns."
So far, most health problems among oil spill workers have been relatively mild, involving heat stress, respiratory problems, headaches and throat irritations, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lisa Kaplowitz told a Senate subcommittee last week.
Since then, 11 oil spill workers have been hospitalized briefly with nausea, dizziness and chest pains amid debate over whether they were caused by a cleaning chemical for docks, the oil dispersant Corexit, heat or fatigue, or a combination.
The oil doesn't bother Jamie Clayton of Atlanta. She brought her husband, Cameron, their 3-year-old son, Colby, and 17-month-old daughter, Lottie, to the beaches at Seaside in Florida's Walton County this week despite local tar ball sightings. "We were actually picking it up and touching it to see how it felt. It didn't seem like a big deal," she said.
And when her children emerged from the surf with light brown tar specks on their feet, she stayed cool: "Honestly, it wasn't anything a baby wipe couldn't get rid of. If it was really dangerous, I'm sure they would have posted a health advisory."
In Louisiana, Guidry's department is posting advisories warning residents not to touch the oil in any form. One says: "Skin contact with oil may cause irritation. Oil particles in the air may also cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Wash skin thoroughly with soap and water if you get oil on skin."
But the experts in New Orleans only underlined the lack of certainty about health effects of the oil. "We have very scant information about oil spills from a few studies of oil tankers that have run aground," said John Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Workers nearest the spill, burning the oil at sea, operating skimming boats, have the greatest exposure. "Close to the plume, where vessels are working in fresh crude, the volatile compounds are not totally gone, including methane, vapors and concentrated dispersants," Howard said.
One chilling note at the New Orleans symposium was the discussion of a Spanish study after the Prestige oil tanker spill of 2002, which left more than 100,000 tons of oil on the North Atlantic coast of Galicia. The study said volunteers cleaning birds and rocky shores experienced damage to their DNA.
The damage tended to repair itself over time, and did not turn into health-threatening alterations of their chromosomes, said Blanca Laffon, a toxicologist at Spain's University of A Coruna. Protective suits and masks did only marginal good, perhaps because the volunteers were not properly instructed in how to wear them, she said.
Long-term, psychological problems could be a bigger problem, said Lawrence Palinkas, a professor of social policy at University of Southern California. He took part in a study of 22 Alaskan communities a year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"There were increased rates of drinking, drug use, fighting among family and friends, declines in social relationships," he said.
Children in particular must be kept away from toxic oil and protected against the stresses of the spill, said Irwin Redlener, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University.
"Children are not little adults," he said. "They live and breathe closer to the ground where toxins can be heavier. Their respiration rates are more rapid, so they concentrate it more. They take risks. Toddlers put everything in their mouths."
McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.