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May 6th, 2010
09:26 AM ET

How will the oil disaster impact our health?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

@CottonKandi (from Twitter)

"How will the oil spill affect our health?"

Answer:

This is very timely question, @CottonKandi. We are in the midst of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Right now the oil slick is traveling along the Gulf Coast, but scientists predict it could soon creep up the Atlantic coast. This has many people wondering about how all of this could impact their health.

In the short-term, the biggest health risks come from inhaling vapors from the oil. For some, that could cause irritation in the nose, eyes, and throat, while others may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headaches. The bellwether group – the group that gives us the first signs of a problem – includes people with breathing problems, like asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Their lungs are more sensitive to airborne toxins.

And then there is the long-term potential impact of the oil, particularly on the environment and our food. "Contaminants in oil can persist for years and accumulate in the food chain, causing elevated cancer risks or neurological risks," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The concern from environmental groups like NRDC stems from contaminants contained in oil – mercury, lead, arsenic, and certain hydrocarbons – which are known to cause cancer.

The state of Louisiana says it is fending off the threat to the food supply by closing down areas where contaminants could impact fish populations, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fish says they will not allow products on the market that could compromise public safety.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set up air monitors along the Gulf Coast and thus far is not reporting unusual health risks due to the oil spill. While there are particular areas where air quality is of concern (for instance Kenner, Louisiana, and City Park, Louisiana), the Environmental Protection Agency stresses this is not unusual for this region, at this time of year. You can check the air monitoring data here.

Yet even with those promises, for as long as the oil slick lingers, so will concerns like yours, @CottonKandi. For now, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is advising those with respiratory conditions, along with young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems, to avoid areas affected by the oil spill.


Filed under: Expert Q&A

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Ralphy McFarkelstix

    They can make barriers for the shores all they like but the oil is still going to effect the plankton and microscopic plant life the lives near the surface of the ocean water which are the basis for the whole food chain. This is going to introduce a whole new level of toxins in the seafood that come from the gulf in addition to the already dangerous levels of mercury that exist in most seafood.
    This just provides yet another reason to fore go eating seafood at all and go vegetarian. I know, I know... where will we get our omega-3's from? Where do you think the fish get it from in the first place... plants! Fish can't produce omega-3 fatty acids themselves and only store it through the plant matter that they eat.

    May 6, 2010 at 11:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Ed

    This is SO SO sad!
    Maybe Obama will think twice about more off-shore drilling.

    May 6, 2010 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RoseofTralee

    I'm on the MS Gulf Coast and we are under an Air Quality Alert. I have asthma and my son regularly has bronchitis.

    May 6, 2010 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Varda

    Our oceans are not expendable – without our oceans all life on earth would perish. We already have an island of plastic waste the sized of the US floating in the pacific. Baby Orcas are dying from exposure to PCBs, flame retardants, pesticides and numerous other toxic substances including heavy metals. Fish farms are also pouring vast amounts of pesticides and antibiotics to the oceans and we are
    ingesting all this horrible stuff as well. The run off from rain and flooding in the US alone = 99 days of water going over Niagra Falls. All the chemicals, and all the toxic stuff we use are polluting our rivers and oceans. Did you know that 1 gallon of fuel oil pollutes 1 million gallons of water? We are destroying our planet, all life and ourselves at a very fast rate. Did you know there is more plastic then plankton in our oceans now? Jet fuel, which causes cancer, has been found in all crop foods. The fish eat it and then the birds and we eat the fish. Without an international EPA and effort to take a responsible approach to our oceans and planet we are doomed. Call Obama 202-456-1111 and tell him our oceans are not expendable. All life on Earth depends on them – and if we keep drilling this will surely happen again. Remember fighting 2 wars and supporting 800 military consumes vast amounts of oil at our expense. This is part of the reason why oil is so expensive and we are so dependent on it.

    May 6, 2010 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jason

    If we truly held the parties accountable that caused the mercury levels and cancer causing agents in our foods we wouldn't have to have concerns. Money always out weighs the peoples health and well being. I do not think a time will exist when greed doesn't rule the world. Maybe when we'er extinct the last penny pincher will take his last breath and the earth will resign to the dark depths of space...void...lifeless and devoid of everything except empty memories.

    May 6, 2010 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Oregon

    Good God! I'm out here in the Pacific Northwest and my heart goes out to your – OUR beautiful Gulf Coast...

    May 6, 2010 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lisa

    Hey,
    If you are into off shore drilling please come to Galveston Island and visit.
    Go out into the water...OK, maybe not now, but, 3 or 4 weeks before the oil spill. What you would have seen is the nastiest brown water with oil and tar in it. This is what will happen to other shore lines if will continue to drill off shore. Spend money on finding new energy sources. Leave the oil in the ground. Where is Tesla when you need him!

    May 7, 2010 at 06:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. paul nicholson

    What a sad thing Why didn't the oil giants and in the future have 2 or 3 safety factors in case one failed like in this instance. Now they knew about the ice so they should have known about this before they put this dome down their on top. They should have put some type of self heating type of pad like the one that u put in your gloves in the winter to keep your hands warm. this my have helped out. I,m sure that the size of this dome the heat could have lasted awhile before it needed changing or even use the robotice sub to change them on the outside of this dome. What kind of sientist are they hiring. like I said they new the ice would have clogged up the pipe bringing the oil to the surface how didn't they think about the dome. thanks from the cold of Canada Paul

    May 8, 2010 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Smith in Oregon

    A great many Petro based Chemicals are known carcinogens. Splashing them on your skin or consuming them are known to increase the chances of skin cancer, stomach, colon and liver cancers.

    It seems Big Oil has several 'advocates' on its pay-roll that are making public statements how healthy it is to eat crude-oil contaminated seafood, oysters, crabs and shrimp.

    This seems to entirely fly in the face with the known carcinogens in Petro-Chemicals. A great many of commercial seafood producers along the effected Gulf of Mexico region are going to be strongly tempted to sell contaminated shrimp, oysters and seafood to the public or risk going bankrupt.

    The real total costs of this single horrific crude oil spill could easily amount to 200 Billion dollars in 1 million direct and indirect lost jobs, business's bankrupt, homes devalued and health exposure costs. Of which BP is likely only going to pay around 7 Billion at most, leaving the American Taxpayers on the hook for 197 Billion dollars.

    Deep sea Oil spills are too expensive for the American Taxpayers to be strapped with for the next 20 years on this spill alone.

    May 8, 2010 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Smith in Oregon

    I imagine family's with homes along the once pristine Gulf Coastal region where the home prices will drop to mere pennys of what they once were worth, will be rightly upset. Just breathing in the horrible pungent smell of creosote would be enough to drive away most residents across that entire multi-state region for years to come.

    It appears the long shot of the never tried before deep sea crude Oil collection box failed. Deep sea crystals called hydride's apparently formed which plugged the exit and Ocean crews have swung the useless at this time collection box some 600 feet to the side of the erupting spill.

    Expanding on a very bad situation in the Gulf of Mexico is the pre-existing Dead Zone which extends for THOUSANDS of miles where no sea life exists and is thought to directly result from the run-off from pesticides and fertilizer chemicals migrating down the Mississippi Delta region out into the Gulf of Mexico.

    This enormous heavy crude Oil spill is entirely likely to join and greatly expand the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently the Dead Zone is one of the largest of its kind in the entire world.

    Perhaps CNN could investigate the expanding and pre-existing enormous Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico in hopes of finding the source.

    May 8, 2010 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Smith in Oregon

    It is entirely refreshing given the horrific heavy crude Oil spill gushing in the once pristine Gulf of Mexico that Media and Public discussion has turned to the huge ongoing grievous harm that Petrol-Chemicals have done to ALL Americans and ALL humans living and breathing on earth.

    For many years I have complained sometimes loudly that 'we' are being bathed in carcinogenic chemicals in the air and in our food as a result of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big on burning fossil fuels.

    These carcinogenic chemicals cause a wide range of diseases which impact all humanity on earth and cost Americans an enormous amount on resulting Health Care just dealing with those suffering directly and indirectly from chronic exposure to Petro-Chemicals.

    How many millions were chronically exposed and poisoned by LEAD when Big Oil placed Lead in Gasoline for decades? Everyone knew blackberry's and fruit that grew along the roads in America were heavily contaminated with LEAD.

    Was Big Oil sued and forced to pay for millions of infants and adults suffering from chronic LEAD poisoning? Of course not, they owned the courts and most of the Republican lawmakers.

    How many millions were chronically exposed and poisoned by Wood Alcohol which former President Big Oil Bush sr. ordered to add to Gasoline? Wood Alcohol is a known carcinogen and a strong poison in aquifers and ground water across America became contaminated with Wood Alcohol as a result.

    Was Big Oil sued and forced to pay for millions of infants and adults suffering from Wood Alcohol poisoning? Of course not, they owned the courts and most of the Republican lawmakers.

    Imagine the same Republican lawmakers entirely outlawing and banning many recreational drugs whose LD50 toxicity is so large it is practically impossible to ingest a life threatening amount, AND yet those same corrupt lawmakers and jurists declare it is fine for their Big Oil and Big Coal primary donors to pour, spew and produce enormous amounts of extremely toxic chemicals which end up in your food, in the air you breath and in the water YOU drink!

    The current system of vastly corrupt laws and regulations places the burden on the government to prove that a chemical is unsafe before it can removed from the market. The standards are so high, the government has been unable to ban chemicals such as asbestos, a widely recognized carcinogen that is prohibited in many other countries.

    About 80,000 chemicals are in commercial use in the United States, but federal regulators have assessed only about 200 for safety.

    Big Pharma's products that are being flushed down the toilets across America and around the world are poisoning everyone downstream whose local and city water supply's depend on that fresh water.

    Mother's milk is increasingly being ever more contaminated with dangerous Petro-Chemical's. For decades Big Oil and Big Coal have been protected from laws and regulations which would force them to deal with the results of their products. Force them to pay for the damage they cause and the diseases that result.

    Mothers across America and around the world should stand up against Big Oil and Big Coal and demand they and their toxic chemicals be held entirely accountable for any and all ill effects they produce and contribute to the infant and human condition.

    May 9, 2010 at 19:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. donna hyde

    the consumers are going to have to pay for this, art they? the oil companies make millions every day off us already. why should we pay for there mistake,for there stupidity. they act like they are going to go broke if they have to spend little money to fix what they broke.why didn't they have a safe Gard on that Rig ? i herd they don't have safe guards on any of there Riggs,this could happen again ,it is just waiting to happen .they were trying to save a little money at the coast of many lives.boy I'd say we have payed enough already.our food is going to be affected,our water, our people,our babies, our children people are going to DIE.that is not enough that is not enough for you people .how much is enough anyway ? how much do we have to give these people.
    the oil that is coming up is not even the kind of oil we put in our cars.it's the kind we make plastic products.why should our gas prices go up when it dose not have anything to do with our cars.they will think of any reason to raise the price of gas,they will take advantege of any situation. they are so stinken greedy,they will milk this.this is just another reason for them to steel from the consumer.
    is money all you rich dummies care about,when you have killed every one how much is your money going to be worth then.can you eat money,can you drink money.this is going to affect you as much as it is going to affect us,but when it is all over you'll just have your money,nothing else.no food no water.this makes me sick ,the way you guys are so greedy makes me sick.you are willing to chance it,to chance every thing for money.
    i will never understand ,you people,you must not have a concence.you should pay for this your self,you did it.you people don't want to take responsibility for any thing you do.all your bad decisions are strapped on the poor peoples back .

    May 23, 2010 at 06:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. TIGER

    WHAT ABOUT THE MENTAL HEALTH OF THE PEOPLE WHO JUST HAD THERE LIVES TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. AFTER KATRINA YOU KNOW THERE MUST HAVE BEEN AN INCREASE IN NUMBERS. THE STATE HAS A BUDGET SHORTFALL AND THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT HAS BE CUT DEEP WHICH INCLUDES OUR MENTAL HEALTH HOSPITALS. WE SHOULD CHECK OUR PRIORITYS AND LOOK AHEAD SINCE WE ARE LOCATED IN A HIGHLY SENSITIVE AREA

    June 4, 2010 at 20:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Aeja

    Time to be Ethical!!!

    After Hurricane Katrina they started building big expensive houses nobody could afford( in poverty driven areas). I wonder who they were trying to get rid of??? Well now that we have this massive oil spill I wonder who they really will get rid of???( Tourist maybe)?? Be scrupulous ( Louisiana Gov.) What goes around, comes around. However, my heart goes out to those who lost everything. But what about the millions of people who were living in poverty before Katrina? They cant even afford to now live in La. because all the housing are expensive. So Sad.

    June 10, 2010 at 16:21 | 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.