Know Your Asthma Triggers
Herbal Remedy Could Halt Peanut Allergy
Climate Change Could Sting Allergy, Asthma Sufferers
38% of U.S. Adults Use Alternative Treatments
Needling Away Your Headaches With Acupuncture
Spot light on Dani Antman New Lionheart teacher
Animals Respond to Acupuncture's Healing Touch
'Comfort Dogs' Come to Emotional Rescue
Separation Anxiety, Canine-Style
Barefoot Lifestyle Has Its Dangers
Childhood Dairy Intake Boosts Bone Health Later On
In Elderly Women, Hip Fractures Often Follow Arm Breaks
Vitamin C Shows Promise as Cancer Treatment
Bitter Melon Extract May Slow, Stop Breast Cancer
Smokeout '08: The Perfect Time to Quit
Caring for Aging Loved Ones Can Be a Catch-22
Late-Life Fatherhood May Lower Child's Intelligence
Tainted China Formula Caused High Rate of Kidney Stones in Kids
Tai Chi and Qigong Offer Many Health Benefits: Review
Walk 100 Steps a Minute for 'Moderate' Exercise
Varicose Veins May Mask Larger Problem
With Psoriasis, the Internet May Offer Hope
Science May Banish Bad Hair Days
Health Tip: After Liposuction
A Sweet Way to Shield Baby's Teeth
Toothbrushing May Stave Off Heart Woes
Laser Technology Spots Cavities Before They Start
Strict Blood Sugar Lowering Won't Ease Diabetes Heart Risk
Vitamin K Slows Insulin Resistance in Older Men
Chamomile Tea May Ward Off Diabetes Damage
Caffeine May Offer Some Skin Cancer Protection
Healthy Eating While On Vacation
Eating Lots Of Vegetables, Olive Oil May Extend Life
Could Your Cell Phone Help Shield You From Alzheimer's?
Review Finds Marijuana May Help MS Patients
Seasons Arriving 2 Days Earlier, Study Says
Pesticides Linked to Parkinson's
Plastics Chemical Tied to Aggression in Young Girls
Diabetic Eye Disease Rates Soaring
Protein Might One Day Prevent Blindness
Music Can Help Restore Stroke Patients' Sight
Bursts of Vigorous Activity Appear to Be a 'Stress-Buffer'
Consciousness Helps the Mind and Body Work Together
Occupational Therapy Plus Exercise Benefits Osteoarthritis
Japanese Herbals May Ease Gastro Woes
Soothing Imagery May Help Rid Some Kids of Stomach Pain
Bowel Prep Harder on Women Than Men
Cocaine Spurs Long-Term Change in Brain Chemistry
Simple Exercise Precautions To Help Keep Baby Boomers Fit
Lower Vitamin D Levels in Blacks May Up Heart Risks
Ski Helmets Encouraged for All
Many Children Will Outgrow Headaches
Zen May Thicken Brain, Thwart Pain
The Internet Is Becoming One-Stop Shopping for Health Help
Imaging Sheds Light on How Acupuncture Works
Combating Myths About Seasonal Allergies
Summer Sounds Can Lead to Hearing Loss
Noise Hurts Men's Hearing More, Study Shows
Kids With Vitamin D Deficiency Linked to Heart Trouble
Vitamin B3 May Help Repair Brain After a Stroke
Irregular Heartbeat Tied to Alzheimer's Disease
Swine Flu Closes Three Schools in NYC
Swine Flu Now Reported in All 50 States
Chinese 'Devil Dung' Plant Could Be a Swine Flu Fighter
Obesity May Affect Fertility in Young Womene
Babies Cared For In Others Homes Might Become Heavy Toddlers
Time to Remind Teens About Sun Protection
Eating Fish, Breast-Feeding Boost Infant Development
More Vitamin C May Mean Less Chance of Gout
Exercise May Prevent Prostate Cancer: Study Shows
Soy Linked to Low Sperm Count
Music Soothes Anxiety as Well as Massage Does
Cinnamon Breaks Up Brain Plaques, May Hold Key to Fighting Alzheimer’s
Teen Internet Addicts More Likely to Self-Harm: Study
Acupuncture, Real or Fake, Eases Back Pain
Alleviating Rheumatoid Arthritis
'Cell Phone Elbow' -- A New Ill for the Wired Age
Pre-Pregnancy Weight Linked to Babies' Heart Problems
Acupuncture May Relieve Acid Indigestation In Pregnancy
Exercise Boosts Bone Density in Breast-Feeding Moms
The Healthy Habits of Centenarians
Friends, Not Grandkids, Key to Happy Retirement
Common Antioxidant Might Slow Parkinson's
Meditation May Help Put Primary Insomnia to Bed
Sleeping Could Help Women Lose The Baby Fat
Daylight Savings: Not a Bright Time for All
Pre-Pregnancy Weight Linked to Babies' Heart Problems
Prenatal Stress May Boost Baby's Asthma Risk
Sleeping Could Help Women Lose The Baby Fat
Add your Article

Is It Safe to Go in the Gulf Coast's Water?

Now that oil and tar balls from the massive Gulf oil spill have begun washing up on the beaches of four states, many are wondering: What, if any, are the health risks to beachgoers and residents of the region?

While the danger to humans may be not nearly as bad as pictures of oil-soaked pelicans would suggest, experts are divided on just how concerned people should be.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said beachgoers shouldn't be complacent. Clean-up workers and even some coastal residents, she said, are complaining of symptoms consistent with exposure to the volatile compounds found in oil, including dizziness, nausea, headaches and cough.

Those reports should be taken seriously, Rotkin-Ellman said, who noted that crude oil contains toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.

"There are definitely human health concerns related to the Gulf Oil spill, both in terms of workers, the community and long-term health concerns as contaminants persist in the environment," she said.

Not all experts agree that the spill poses a danger to the public at Gulf Coast beaches.

Data from the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) show that clean-up and repair workers in the Gulf of Mexico near the spill have not been exposed to harmful levels of toxins, said Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. This confirms data from BP, the owner of the crippled oil rig that has spewed countless barrels of crude oil into the Gulf since an April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, Emery said.

Federal estimates place the total amount of oil spilled between 23.7 million and 51.5 million gallons, the worst oil spill in the nation's history.

If workers near the source of the spill don't seem to be in harm's way, then it's safe to presume that the oil reaching the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida isn't much of a risk to beachgoers and residents, Emery said.

"The people you'd expect to be most intimately exposed to the chemicals contained in crude oil are those working on the water near the source of the leak," Emery said. "Now we have data not only from BP but OSHA that shows these worker exposures are minimal if not non-existent. That's good news and it's safe to assume the risks would be even less for the general public on the beaches."

Rotkin-Ellman disagreed, noting that much also remains unknown about the health effects of the massive amounts of chemical dispersants used to fight the spill that break an oil slick into small drops.

On one point experts agree: Beachgoers need to exercise common sense. That means avoiding swimming in water that's visibly contaminated by oil.

Crude oil contains many toxic chemicals, including volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, Rotkin-Ellman said. Those compounds include benzene, ethylbenzene, xylene and naphthalene, all known carcinogens, she said.

While dangerous if ingested or inhaled, these chemicals tend to dissipate and evaporate over time, experts said. Research shows that the toxic potency of crude oil declines the longer the oil is floating in the water or in the air, a process called "weathering," Emery said.

Still, beachgoers can't tell on their own if the oil they encounter is fresh or has been floating around awhile, Emery said.

Before heading to the beach, Emery said it's a good idea to check with local or state authorities about health conditions.

Rotkin-Ellman said parents should be especially cautious about exposing children to oil-soiled beaches.

"Children's bodies are more vulnerable and susceptible to environmental contaminants," she said. "Their bodies don't process contaminants in the same way. Their skin can be more sensitive to the chemicals in oil. Certainly I would recommend keeping children away from any oily substance or oily water."

If you do encounter tar balls or oil slicks, don't touch them. Fresh crude oil is a skin irritant that can cause redness, burning and even ulcers with prolonged contact. Though the oil washing up on the beaches probably isn't as harsh, it's still a good idea to keep it off your skin, Emery said.

Oil tar is sticky and difficult to remove. If soap and water don't work, try petroleum jelly or a commercially sold de-greaser that's made to be used on the skin. People have been known to use gasoline to remove tar from their skin -- a bad idea all around, Emery said.

If you do smell fumes from an oil spill, people with respiratory ailments and asthma should stay indoors with the air-conditioner set on "re-circulate," Rotkin-Ellman said. The chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose and throat even at low concentrations.

And, by all means, report the odor to health authorities.

SOURCES: Robert Emery, Dr. P.H., vice president for safety, health, environment & risk management, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, M.P.H., staff scientist, health and environment program, Natural Resources Defense Council, San Francisco Published on: June 10, 2010