June 10th, 2010
09:05 AM ET
As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here are several questions related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Dr. Gupta.
From Jacque, Mobile, Alabama
"What health problems could the dispersant Corexit cause? I still don't understand why BP continues to use it."
Jacque, that's an interesting question. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of Corexit dispersants have been sprayed into the oil slick since April. It's banned in many countries including Great Britain. But it's approved by the EPA here in the U.S., despite the fact that it has been rated less effective and more toxic than many other EPA-approved dispersants. A lot of people know that now.
I talked to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about that very thing and pointed out there's a list of 18 dispersants, and out of that list, this is one of the most toxic. It's unclear why BP continues to use it. Jackson said the EPA has encouraged BP to stop using this particular substance.
I found the product information sheet on the website of the manufacturer of this dispersant. It's says it's classified as a hazardous substance, and it says you have to use adequate ventilation and certainly use some sort of mask or breathing apparatus when applying it.
That certainly raises concerns when we see pictures of people working on the oil slick without any breathing protection.
From Doug, Memphis, Tennessee
"What are the risks to all the seafood that comes out of the Gulf? Could it be tainted?"
Doug, that's a question that many people are asking. About 37 percent of the Gulf of Mexico is now closed to fishing. To put that in perspective, that's an area slightly bigger than the state of Minnesota.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been strict about not letting fishermen fish in the closed areas. They're patrolling and boats that are not part of the cleanup efforts are getting booted out of the area.
And the federal government says it is taking every precaution to protect people from eating bad fish and seafood. Right now, officials say fish and shellfish currently on the market are safe to eat. There is no reason to believe that any contaminated seafood has made its way to stores and restaurants.
Here's the bottom line: If someone eats contaminated seafood, experts say there's not too much to fear. People might feel sick to their stomach, but that's about it. As for dispersants used to combat the oil spill, experts say dispersants don't accumulate in seafood, so consumers shouldn't be concerned about that either.
Some of my colleagues have asked how the seafood is tested. We checked on that: Before they reopen fishing in the area, officials will test fish tissue, sediment and water from the area to determine if seafood from the area is safe.
From Eddy, Navarre Beach, Florida
"The tar balls have landed on the beach, people are walking through them and then spreading the tar to the beach crossovers, the carpet in their vehicles and then into the rental houses on the beach. Where will it spread to next, maybe parts will follow vacationers back to there homes?"
Eddy, if there is a good thing with regard to impact on human health, it is that this oil disaster started 50 miles out in the ocean. What happens as this oil comes in, even this dispersant mixture starts to make its way toward shore, it does become weathered, so to speak. It contains these volatile, organic compounds– the term VOC, which has been thrown around a lot. They evaporate quickly and become less and less toxic. While tar balls on the beach may irritate your skin a little bit, by the time it gets to the beach you don't need to wear a mask because all those VOCs are gone. Don't touch the tar balls if you can avoid them. If your shoes come in contact with them, take your shoes off before you go into the house.
As a precaution, consider showering and changing clothes before returning to your car or home to prevent the oil remnants from getting into them.
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.