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June 17th, 2010
07:51 PM ET

Should you worry about burning the oil spill?

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Senior Medical Producer

As cleanup workers burn off oil from BP’s ruined Deepwater Horizon well, the black clouds of smoke soaring skyward are carrying questions about health risks, along with a thick helping of soot, volatile gases and other toxic byproducts.

The most immediate risk is to cleanup workers or others in proximity to the burn, according to Dr. Phil Harber, head of the division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

However, depending on the eventual scope of the burn, and length of the cleanup effort, others on shore could be affected, says Harber. “People with asthma, or who are very young, or who have cardiac disease,  are much more likely to be sensitive the released pollutants.”

Federal officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Agency have issued a memorandum insisting on proper safety equipment and training for all cleanup workers. When reached by CNN, spokespeople for two companies helping with the effort – Global Industries, and Boots and Coots - would not say if workers were taking special precautions to protect against the smoke.

More than 12,600 workers are helping with the overall cleanup effort, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The black cloud is largely made up of small particles that can lodge deep in the lungs. It also contains gases such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and volatile compounds called  polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which at high exposures are considered a trigger for cancer, says Harber.

Of course, because of the volatile compounds it gives off, the spilled oil poses some health risk, simply sitting on the surface. OSHA has been monitoring air in the main clean up area, and posting some results on its website. The Environmental Protection Agency also has air monitoring stations around the Gulf, with results posted on this website. According to data posted on June 15, the EPA says that air-quality levels for ozone and particulates on the Gulf coastline are no different from usual, for this time of year.

However, the gases swirling around the spill do seem to be having at least some health effect. Hospitals have reported several dozen cleanup workers who complained of symptoms including headaches, nausea and dizziness.

Long-term, the potential impact is unclear. John Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, told a congressional panel Wednesday, “We have very scant information, in general, about oil spills.”

With reporting from CNN intern Trisha Pasricha.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (110 Responses)
  1. earl

    Give me a break! The "powers that be" said the same thing about the air quality of the 9/11 disaster. It is only now that they realize that people are dying from the toxic smoke they were exposed to. They want suckers to clean up this mess for a few bucks (that many really need). They don't care about the long term effects and people should realize that the money they are making now by cleaning up this mess will not benefit them and their families a few years from now if they are not around.

    June 17, 2010 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. jblum

    Why are we allowing this to happen? Is there no oversight? Does anyone in Washington know this is going on?????

    June 17, 2010 at 22:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kelvin Wilson

    I don't recall your or anyone elses concerns over the burning oil wells while US Veterans served during the Gulf War. Where were the concerns over proper equipment? Black clouds lodging deep in the lungs......hell I sneezed and coughed up black soot for months after leaving the combat environment. Gulf war vets had the same health issues and were denied VA benefits.

    June 17, 2010 at 22:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. MK

    Well, duh. The oil spill has adverse health effects. Burning the oil has adverse health effects. Living has adverse health effects. Life is a terminal illness. Everyone who catches it dies. News at 11.

    June 17, 2010 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Nils Lucander

    Just what the hell is wrong with these government and corporate morons who are deciding how to clean this crap up? Now not only will we have poisoned water and seafood, we will have poisoned air to breathe too. Its quite obvious to me that the leader of America, the most powerful man on Earth, along with all his brilliant scientists and government thinkers, and corporate greed-masters together, haven't a clue what they are doing.
    I pity and pray for the people whose lives and health are being and will be ruined by their ineptness.

    June 17, 2010 at 23:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Maria Bean

    I was thinking and to sugest to burn the oil tree wecks ego.!

    We need to know wow long take to collection the burn oil.?
    Wow far can go to the sky. Where will go if there is wind?

    We need study and vacuete peopols until clean.

    It was my idea, We will safe the ocean and we will inquinate the others.

    Sono desolata for all this!

    Maria

    June 17, 2010 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Nick

    Toxic exhaust gases are floating over every big US city, but new outlets never talk about that since it has become so "normal" to breathe filthy air.

    June 17, 2010 at 23:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Anth

    one word .. "idiots"

    June 17, 2010 at 23:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Mari

    I can't understand why they are burning this stuff. Why is it not being salvaged? Burning it seems to make matters worse; it's bad enough that the oil is leaking, and now BP is burning it and causing more problems.

    June 17, 2010 at 23:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. sugarmama

    Talk to any GP or ENT specialist in New Orleans and they'll tell you that, even miles away from the spill/burn/Corexit spraying, people are reporting throat, eye and respiratory problems in exponentially higher numbers than before the spill and subsequent burns began. Manageable respiratory conditions are becoming more persistent and severe, and people who never had throat/eye or breathing trouble are having problems. I can only imagine what several months of breathing in this stuff is going to do. God help us all, and somebody please make sure that $20 billion is invested well to pay for our cancer treatments 10-20 years down the road.

    June 17, 2010 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. fading hope

    Just wait until the winds blow all of those fumes and toxins inland....hopefully not in the form of a hurricane because then they will not only have the toxic air to deal with but the storm surge could bring the oil itself inland for miles. Both would pollute the fresh drinking water sources and damage vegetation (crops). This is only the beginning folks! Just wait.....it's not going to be good!

    June 17, 2010 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. vig

    I wouldn't eat any of the fish coming out of those waters for the next 5 years. There is no way they are going to know the efffects on the fish nor would I swim in those waters for years.

    June 18, 2010 at 00:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Collin

    Thats what I say: Light èr up!

    June 18, 2010 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Cole

    The burns are the best way to protect the wetlands, experts say,. check this out: http://horizonspill.blogspot.com/

    June 18, 2010 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Steve W.

    As the largest consumer of oil in the world you, the U.S.A., have no right to treat the BP representative like a child being chewed out by his school principle. Your goverenmnent gave BP permission to drill off your coast and chose, as they always do, not to push inspections and to make sure the oil rig was operating safely. It's all about money and you don't care how the oil and money gets to you so long as it does. Your country, the wildlife and perhaps the world have paid the price of your greed and lack of interest in the rigs operational safety so get off your high horse, clean up your mess and quit pointing fingers and at least accept half of the blame!!!!!!!!

    June 18, 2010 at 02:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. qwerty

    Well, we're not dealing with ideal situations here... We can either do it the slow manual way which will cause a lot of problems because it is slow and there is direct exposure to the oil for the workers. Plus, the slower you clean it up, the more area gets exposed to the oil. Or we can burn it off which has its own issues. If there were a perfect solution, I think we'd be doing it already...

    June 18, 2010 at 03:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Phyllis

    I have the perfect solution that could possibly help to contain and dilute the surface oil that has been released to date. Use Dawn dishwashing liquid and spray it onto the oil. Oil is similar to grease, and this product does cut the grease on dishes. I am not being sarcastic, but nothing else has worked so far.

    June 18, 2010 at 03:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Graythinker

    The biggest obstacle to cleaning up the oil spill is the plethora of public demands for "immediate action". The knowledgeable scientists and technicians need time to decide the best course of action to chose from among the "lessor of all evils" of the possible choices of action.

    June 18, 2010 at 06:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kurye

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  19. Esther Phillips

    Well you'll find out won't you. Large amounts of people in developping countries have been exposed to flaring so that you can have everything SUPER-SIZED, there should be plenty of studies available...
    Good luck

    June 18, 2010 at 06:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. tensor

    "Oil burn could have wide health effects"

    'Ya think? Could? How about ... will. Money, money, money.

    June 18, 2010 at 07:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. nicole

    Hello, Is there not a more natural way to clean the oil up we are already suffering in many ways from not using a more safer earth friendly way to clean the oil that takes time. It took time to create the mess so it will take time to clean it up ! We all are harm more ways than one by the accident why continue to due damage and put things out of balance any more. Thanks

    June 18, 2010 at 08:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Harold Rempel

    The CDC and EPA should take a look at the short-term and long-term effects of the oil wells that Sadam burned in the desert during the Gulf War. We were blowing black soot out of our noses and walking around in desert uniforms turned gray from the smoke for weeks. You can't underestimate the impact when you are coughing up black phlegm. There are volumes of research on the potential effects of burning oil. "Scant information about oil spills".... yeah right. The only saving grace here is the distance of this burn from the shore and the direction of the prevailing winds.

    June 18, 2010 at 08:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Marty Michael

    I have no doubt that the burning oil smoke and the fumes from pools of oil has adverse health effects. I was in the Army during Desert Storm and while in Kuwait was constantly exposed to huge clouds of smoke from the burning wells and the fumes from destroyed wells that were not buring but still leaking crude oil into large standing pools of oil. Myself and everyone in my unit had the same symptoms you mention in your atricle.

    I had never had breathing problems but after weeks of that exposure I have developed asthma, chronic lung and airway infections and other health problems. These problems started while in Kuwait and are ongoing. Many thousands of others who were there have the same health problems.

    I would think that the experts could look to the studies conducted as a result of that war for information. I doubt there is "scant information on oil spills" as one expert was quoted as saying. Maybe they just need to look at history a bit closer to find it. It's ironic, but during our time "in the smoke" we were told there was no problem breathing the air. Seems the experts are still saying that.

    June 18, 2010 at 08:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Robert

    Burn only when the wind is blowing south. 🙂

    June 18, 2010 at 08:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Tom Legare

    Doesn't the air also carry the toxics to other areas of the Country and world? How about the general air pollution it contributes too? I think alot of things are either not being reported oR are surely being downplayed!!

    June 18, 2010 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. liz

    i've been wondering about this. seems like it could cause an acid rain effect or something. we live in new orleans and i'm wondering how far inland people should worry about all the poisonous gases polluting the air.

    June 18, 2010 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. 7thseal

    Any Democrat! Not in your favor to bail your the President due to FEAR and I pray loose your soul to the mighty money, when your in the driver's sit.
    I tell you the truth! The Republicans and the Tea party along with their flock will destroy themselves No, HAVE destroyed themselves to no return. What’s happening to our nation down in the gulf will never be stopped EVER!!! The President and the administration are doing all they can to solve a problem that CANNOT be. A southern Republican speaks from Texas(Bush State hmmmm...) on behalf of BP? So far, The south is being devastated and our Americans in the south have the nerve to STILL criticize the Government. I tell you the truth; you need to stop people from the south with that evil-hatred of your on the Government, the more you complaining to your own nation’s leaders, the more it’s going to get down their. " Never Bite The Hand that feeds you and your family. It would be FOLLY of you to do so. Republicans don't care about you Democrats; especially the President. Oil WILL pile in their homes, and they still will criticize you. So shall it be. It is done.

    June 18, 2010 at 09:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. DAS

    Oh no ,Its PASSIVE SMOKE THATS KILLING EVERYBODY NO ? Nope,Guess not because its all a LIE

    June 18, 2010 at 09:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. spanglish

    I just wonder one the senators mentioned to follow the laws. Which one are the Laws,Norms and regulations that the drilling and/or the rigs have to comply with?. Toyota the manufacturer was blame for deficiencies. Why don't blame here the builder and owners of the rig?. Maybe was erected with questionable materials and system.Nobody knows the point of origin of the materials used in the deepwater horizon owned by Transocean?

    June 18, 2010 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Michael Perry

    What about hurricane season? Is all this oil going to rain down on the midwest when all this gets picked up by the tropical storms?

    June 18, 2010 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Sandra VanSuch

    We live here, our Gulf, our air, our lives and our children's are at stake and we are helpless. We can't even get a real answer on our water and air quality because we are a tourism run state and no one wants to scare off the tourists and hurt our already suffering economy. Yes nothing has washed on our beach yet, but what are we breathing every day, VOC’s, dispersant? Why is the rain water washing down the streets white tinted? Is it what has blanketed the ground from our air or toxic rain from the air from the burns? Please, we who live here beg all of you to tell our leaders enough already, do the right thing, take care of this, save our waters, save us!

    June 18, 2010 at 10:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. v.barrow

    What are the end products of the 2010 burn process, i.e., what are the actual products released from the burn, what will happen to these products (incorprated in rain and back to the earth or waters; or incoporated in the atmosphere and at what level and what impact to our climate). I want to know the actual end products of the GreenBurner.

    June 18, 2010 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Mike

    mk is correct, living in a city causes adverse heath effects, even many legal medications, not to mention Xrays and the fetus. (too many obstetric ultrasounds can cause mental retardation).
    Putting toxins in the sea, being so greedy for oil as to search under the sea, well, who would think that nothing would ever happen?
    We cannot even have full control of what we can put our hands on readily. Other energy sources are there, but try selling that idea to big oil.

    June 18, 2010 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Wendy

    This is getting ridiculous!
    Washington should have stepped up on the first day.
    Sucking the oil out of the water WORKS!
    Why all of the politics?

    June 18, 2010 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. snookemon

    The Hazwoper training manual states that burning 'soured petroleum product' creates sulfuric acid release. How are we to know as Americans that they are not creating an 'acid rain' scenario? Which oil is 'soured' and which is not?

    June 18, 2010 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. jim greene

    so also does the oil its self have a health risk . nothing is free in this world . ice cream has a health risk . ya can pick on every little thing anyone does to talk against it . we got to do something like it or not . today we are dealing with what we have . burnung it has hazard – what about oil in our wet lands .
    to deal with it to get rid of it . it's like arguing which room the president gives a speech in . how stupid petty can ya get and still look in a mirror . we gota act here .

    June 18, 2010 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Ro

    I was wonder about the health risks when they did this. However, the people doing the controlled burning state that it was the lesser of the two evils. The government already knows about it anyway and have not interfered. You could have millions of killed life in the ocean, loss of revenue for fisheries (etc.), and other ways of life destroyed (maybe for generations). So in the short term and most likely the long term it probably is the better choice.

    I want to trust what they are doing is the best option. I hope it is but I too have my doubts.

    June 19, 2010 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. vanessa

    you can't make me believe that they just don't know what the long term effects are. To publicize that data might hinder their ability to find poor people willing to clean it up for $10/hr.

    C'mon people– what do you THINK it's going to do? Don't be an idiot!

    June 21, 2010 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.