June 10th, 2010
09:05 AM ET

How will the oil spill affect my health?

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.

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Tom

    @Doug. Are you saying that there are no long term health risks associated with consuming petroleum laced food?

    June 10, 2010 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Renee


      Don't you know that we're already eating "petroleum-laced" food everyday? All of the synthetic fertlizers and pesticides are made from oil. Agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of oil in the US. It's in the air we breathe because of our automobiles and in our water from run-off.

      Wake up! We are all swimming in oil whether we know it or not. The only positive to come out of this Gulf Spill is a growing awareness of how much our government and big corporations has deceived and, ultimately, failed us.

      July 28, 2010 at 14:29 | Report abuse |
  2. Monica MacNichol

    Will swimming in the Gulf with the disperants be harmful?

    June 10, 2010 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Allison

    i think they need to stop the oil spill.

    June 10, 2010 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Oner M. Onergil

    How come we do not hear other oil companies such as Texaco, Shell or Mobil pitch in to help their buddy BP in the Gulf Coast with sending additional tanker ships, sharing the technology or sharing the cost of the desaster?

    June 10, 2010 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mike

    I am sure cost remains the number one reason BP continues to use Corexit. As toxicity increases, I am sure the price decreases as it becomes a less desirable product for consumers. BP most likely invested a ton of money in to purchasing Corexit and is stubbornly refusing to buy and use a safer product. Shows where their true intentions lie... The bottom line, not the environment.

    June 10, 2010 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply


    June 10, 2010 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dr. Alan M. Gibbs

    Has anyone compaired this oil spill to the one in Scotland , the Braer incident. It sickened an entire islands population, both from the oil aerosolizing as well as the dispersents..........

    June 10, 2010 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. jenelle

    What about these chemicals that are evaporating into the air? Is that all going to rain down on us?

    June 10, 2010 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Raphael

    I would be cautious about recommending people that they should eat seafood outside of the 37 percent of the closed area. The fact is that this is an evolving situation, and there is not sufficient scientific data to make any claims about whether the seafood is contaminated or not, or swimming in water with tar balls is good for your health or not. As for Corexit and other dispersants, it may help break up the oil, but there could be a lot of long term effects on organisms in the Gulf and even the Atlantic. By the way, the booms that BP put out will not stop the undersea clouds or plumes from making their way to the shore because they will just pass underneath. It is not clear that by cleaning up the surface of the Gulf will stop the pollution from contaminants deep in the Gulf from reemerging on beaches and poisoning the entire Gulf ecosystem. Who knows whether dangerous diseases from dispersants and oil will spread to other fish throughout the Gulf?
    My fear is that by trying to protect the tourism industry in the Gulf, we might later find out people who swim there might be contaminated and face dangerous health risks.

    June 10, 2010 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. elise

    I have a 2 year old with a compromised immune system. We currently live in New Orleans but have the ability to move to the west coast. I am wondering about the long term effects of living in New Orleans and how it could affect my son. I am most concerned about the benzene and other voc in the air. The only air quality monitoring of voc's that I've found online appears to be in Chalmette. Is there anyway that you can predict the long term health risks of living in the New Orleans area based on the likelihood of voc dispersments? Thank you.

    June 10, 2010 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. J.Borne

    What are they doing with all the oilfilled sand and protective clothing that thy're collecting? Are they contaminaing our land or drinking water with this waste? I live in Slidell,La. and I haven't heard anything on the news about this. Maybe you can help with this question.

    June 10, 2010 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. John

    Before you panic about the "tar balls", keep in mind that this material is essentially what every highway in the country is paved with. We live around "tar" all day, everyday.

    You shouldn't eat it, it's annoying when it gets on your shoes, and it's a CATASTROPHE when it shows up on your local beach, but it's not going to kill you, or even make you sick, if you get a little bit on you. Birds and fish are a different story...

    June 10, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. barbara bashor

    BP needs to be put out of business period. Not wanting to use safe dispersants because it costs too much. Ohmy god. What about the environment , peoples health? Doesn't really matter to them evidently.They should all be ousted after they pay monies owed. Hopefully if and when they do pay maybe they will be out of business. They shouldn't be allowed to or have so much power that they can just do whatever they like. And also after being sued for not having any safety plans in place. How stupid or less caring can these people be.

    June 11, 2010 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lierd heming

      Why should bp be put out of buisness they are a bunch on men doing their job and trying to run a buisness and they have spent billions of dollars to make this safer and better for all. And the reason for not buying new dispertants is because. They spent millions of dollars and they dont really feal like throeing away millions of dollars and it was approved by the EPA . So suck my nuts

      July 3, 2010 at 22:41 | Report abuse |
  14. Tisa

    FACTS about the Gulf Oil spill dispersant and EPA


    Regulatory Submission
    COREXIT 9500 is on the U.S. Environmental
    Protection Agency’s (EPA) National
    Contingency Plan (NCP) Product Schedule. This
    listing does not mean that EPA approves,
    recommends, licenses, certifies or authorizes
    the use of COREXIT 9500 on an oil discharge.
    This listing means only that data have been
    submitted to EPA as required by Subpart J of
    the National Contingency Plan 300.915.
    COREXIT 9500 has been tested and accepted
    by Environment Canada, and approved by
    U.K. Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as
    a Type 2 and 3 dispersant. COREXIT 9500 has
    also been approved in Norway, France,
    Singapore and Indonesia. Prior to use, check
    with local authorities.

    June 11, 2010 at 07:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Tisa


    On the toxicity question, you could hardly find a more dangerous combination of poisons to dump into the Gulf of Mexico than what has been revealed in Corexit. The Corexit 9527 product has been designated a "chronic and acute health hazard" by the EPA. It is made with 2-butoxyethanol, a highly toxic chemical that has long been linked to the health problems of cleanup crews who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill.

    A newer Corexit recipe dubbed the "9500 formula" contains dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, (laxative)


    June 11, 2010 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Timothy C

    It is funny how so many of us are blind to the fact that this oil leak is merely a concentrated form of what we are exposed to everyday–hydrocarbons burned and released from the vehicles all around us, not to mention the tar and volatile organic compounds in asphault and other construction materials. The disaster in the gulf is a regional catastrophe, but the legacy of a hundred years of burning fossil fuels dwarfs it by comparison. If we are to eventually put this all behind us and begin the recovery process, we've got to reduce our reliance on this squalid technology and take serious steps toward cleaner energy. We can do it and we ought to.

    June 12, 2010 at 21:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. victoria


    June 12, 2010 at 23:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Elaine Oliver

    This comment is pertaining to Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables are the most chemically contaminated.

    My question, How many have been genetically altered?

    Please respond.

    June 13, 2010 at 18:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Gerry

    What a giant oil find! Crude oil is organic. It is plant matter. Pour some on your yard and watch the grass grow. I will be called a fool but hide and watch.......long term this crude will do nothing but fertilize the Gulf. Let's tell the Middle East will will find and use our own oil.
    I live in the West Texas Oil Field. Home of some of the Best Whitetail Deer hunting, Bob White Quail Hunting and Bass Fishing in the State. The biggest worry with the oil patch is the SALT WATER that come up with the oil. Crude Oil is not poison.

    June 14, 2010 at 19:43 | Report abuse | Reply


    MSDS's are data sheets that describe the physical, chemical, and toxicological data associated with any given chemical being used by any chemical. MSDSs are required by law/regulation to be available on site to all employees and/or visitors. The chemicals and oil being discharged into the Gulf would require MSDSs.

    CNN,under the above scenario, should be able to obtain and post the MSDSs of the chemicals being used by BP as well as information pertaining to the composition of the oil being discharged into the Gulf , including the volatile organic compounds ("VOCs").

    Can CNN obtain the MSDSs?

    June 15, 2010 at 11:29 | Report abuse | Reply

    Has the site of the Deepwater Horizon and the associated contaminated sites been declared "Superfund sites"?

    June 15, 2010 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Barbara

    Dr. Gupta,

    Please follow-up on the dispersant topic. Why is it still used when the EPA told BP to stop using it at the end of May? The medical implications of this chemical are very important to those of us with family in the area. The tourism departments in FL are indicating that oil/dispersant-laced water is safe to swim in!

    June 22, 2010 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. glen

    My dad had the idea of using high powereful settling torches to set the oil and gas on fire at the oil opening to turn the oil into ashes. Has anyone put foth this idea as a solution to the oil going into the gulf?

    June 22, 2010 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jason

    I am worried that portions of the gulf will have to relocate if a hurricane dumps oil in the drinking watersheds, and that what if the leak can not be stopped.

    June 24, 2010 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Linda Kurtz

    Why is BP using a dispersant that is banned in the UK in US waters?

    June 25, 2010 at 00:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. nick grandinetti

    will our drinking water be effected by the oil spill??

    June 25, 2010 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. angeli alvares

    I've read that there is a two mile wide methane gas bubble under the present oil leak that will explode if relief wells are dug and that the best way out is to cut the riser and replace it. If BP has not the money to do that then the world community should pitch in otherwise not only the U.S. will be devastated by this methane blowout but it might signal the beginning of the end for all of us. Can we trust these present guys? We wouldn't have gotten in this mess in the first place by business people who were trying to save $118.000 on replacing a faulty crucial part. Govts of the world should step in and find out what's really going on and offer their scientists to find a SAFE SOLUTION, otherwise the whole world will suffer the consequences of tainted rain, tainted (methane) air, and tainted oceans. People will panic when they find out the truth but then they will go about trying to fix the problem. Why stick all our heads into the sand and end up being blasted out?

    June 27, 2010 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. angeli alvares

    I suggest that everybody get down on their knees and pray and pray hard. There are sites on Utube that will tell you another story that appears to me very plausible as these sites are backed by scientists and engineers.

    June 27, 2010 at 08:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Adelaide Grass

    Artificial and synthetic products are in basically everything we use and eat these days, we need to learn to recycle and use alternative products to avoid these issues. Buy grass fed beef and organic foods.

    October 25, 2010 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.