Experts warn of Gulf oil spill's toxicity

PENSACOLA — The teacher didn't mince words.

Don't touch the oil, he told the 40 volunteers who had signed up to help clean up the beaches and marshes. Don't let it get on your skin. Don't take off your protective suit, even if it gets to be 100 degrees outside.

And if a supervisor says evacuate, don't dawdle, he warned them. Get out of there.

As the Deepwater Horizon rig continues spewing oil from a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, most of the public's attention has been focused on the harm it could do to beaches, birds, fish and coastal wetlands. But there are questions about how bad the oil could be for humans, too.

"You are dealing with a toxic substance, there's no doubt about it," said David Mica of the pro-drilling Florida Petroleum Council.

Crude oil contains such harmful chemicals as benzene, which can cause cancer, and hydrocarbons, which can cause ailments ranging from headaches and nausea to breathing problems and abdominal pains. The Environmental Protection Agency has already begun taking air samples all along the Gulf Coast to check for unhealthy levels of hydrocarbon fumes in the air.

One study of people who breathed in the fumes from a 2003 tanker spill off the coast of Pakistan found that they suffered "impaired lung function." A year later, after avoiding the fumes for months, they had recovered.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, more than 200 of the claims that cleanup workers filed with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration were for respiratory problems while more than 40 concerned skin irritations.

Public health professionals across Florida are telling everyone the same thing: If you see any oil in the water, "avoid it. Don't swim, ski, fish or boat in it," said Brandy Downing of the Pinellas County Health Department. "That goes especially for pregnant women or children."

One expert says the concern about toxic effects on humans may be what she called "overkill."

The oil that washed ashore from the Exxon Valdez hit the water close to land, so it still carried some of its toxic effects, said LuAnn White, director of the Tulane University Center for Applied Environmental Public Health. The oil coming from Deepwater Horizon started 50 miles offshore and will have been in the water a long time before washing ashore, she said.

Because the oil will have had time to become "weathered," she said, a lot of what makes it toxic will be gone.

What's left is likely to be a sheen on the surface and gooey tarballs, she predicted. The sheen is no worse than what winds up around boats at a marina, she said, but it can be toxic to marine life. As for the tarballs, "they're icky, they're ugly, they're nasty" — but except for irritating your skin, they're "not very toxic," she said.

The thing that saves us all, White said, is the gulf will dilute much of what's poisonous. "There's so much water out there," she said.

She cautioned against eating any fish that smell like they've been marinated in petrochemicals. "If it smells oily," she said, "throw it out." Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Experts warn of Gulf oil spill's toxicity 05/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 12:08am]

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