August 16th, 2010
11:04 AM ET

Journal: Doctors should watch for long-term Gulf illnesses

Doctors need to be on the lookout for a wide range of illnesses related to the Gulf oil spill, ranging from cancers to skin rashes, according to an editorial in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Clinicians should be aware of toxicity from exposures to oil and related chemicals” and ask patients where they live and whether they’ve been exposed on the job, the JAMA commentary said.

The article in the prestigious medical journal said it was difficult to say for certain whether exposure to oil was the cause of the more than 300 cleanup workers and others along the Gulf seeking treatment for such symptoms as headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, coughing, respiratory distress and chest pains.

But long-term health problems are likely, if other oil spills are a guide.

The JAMA commentary pointed to studies from previous major spills showing health effects years later, especially among workers involved in the cleanup.

A study of cleanup workers 14 years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill found a higher prevalence of chronic airway disease among workers with high oil exposures. Chronic airway disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, restricts or limits airflow to the lungs. The Exxon Valdez cleanup workers also reported being less sharp mentally and having sensitivity to multiple chemicals.

Studies after the 2002 Prestige oil spill off the coast of Spain found increased DNA damage among cleanup workers and increased rates of respiratory tract symptoms.

Major oil spills in Alaska, Spain, Korea and Wales have also resulted in higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder, the JAMA article said, citing studies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that the levels of pollutants in the Gulf may result in symptoms including eye, nose or throat irritation, nausea and headaches but are unlikely to cause “long-term harm.”

Among the hazardous components of oil with potential long-term health effects cited by the JAMA commentary:

• Benzene, known to cause leukemia.

• Napthalene, a suspected human carcinogen.

• Toluene, which can disrupt embryo development at high doses.

Benzene, toluene and xylene, another component of oil, can also cause respiratory irritation and affect the central nervous system.

Particulate matter, produced by burning oil, is associated with heart and breathing symptoms and is linked to premature death.

The JAMA authors also warned that oil releases dangerous chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide gas and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Hydrogen sulfide gas can damage the brain and central nervous system, they said, while polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, considered likely caricogens, will accumulate for years in oysters, shrimp and crabs.

The article was written by Dr. Gina M. Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and associate clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, and Dr. Sarah Janssen, a staff scientist at the NRDC, a non-profit environmental group.

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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Davis

    Oh, the doctors are just loving the oil spill. So are the drug companies. They are just foaming at the mouth trying to come up with names of new illnesses associated with the spill.

    August 16, 2010 at 14:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Daniel Hale

    Part of the promised 20 billion should be set aside to help those who are exposed to petrochemicals as a result of this spill.

    Neither the government nor big business likes to quickly admit their mistakes and poor research...Remember Love Canal? Agent Orange? Thalidomide?

    Common sense suggests that monies need to immediately be available to anyone in the Gulf States who were-are being exposed to these toxins.

    August 16, 2010 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. lin

    From my viewpoint, most everyone is just trying to sort out the oil spill problems. The workers are the ones in there trying to clean up the physical problems and the medical professionals are trying to help them out. If other readers have positive information that will help either of the groups with the health problems, it would be beneficial to post reliable information.
    The important issue is that there is more awareness of the effects of working on the clean-ups since the article mentioned some negative health problems from similar work in earlier years in various global locations. The physical reactions don't always come with visible symptoms that are noticed as easily as actual wounds or disabilities, but are typically real to deal with for those who end up with health problems. If drug companies are trying to get in on the situation, hopefully they will be aware of the oil/petroleum compounds being closely linked in structure to some types of medications. Medical staff, family, friends, etc. need to be alert to reactions of any type with treatments to the workers. I didn't have chemistry class but have learned more from my own reactions to a variety of irritants. Any of the workers who are having reactions need to have support from medical staff and loved ones as needed and possible. As for the 300 workers with problems, just asking them and their families about their health histories prior to the oil exposure would help JAMA's outlook. Being in contact with medical associations from other oil spill locations might be beneficial for the Gulf clean-up crews.

    August 16, 2010 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. lin

    Not sure if it is reliable information, but making sure that proteins are included as part of meal planning or snacks helps my system recover from similar irritants. The one protein source, eggs, might not be the best choice for the more ill workers because I think that they also contain sulfur if my source of information is correct. With this type of illness, eating properly is important. Cars were made to work with gas and oil – not our bodies – so the intake of compounds is going to cause health distress for some. Unfortunately alcoholic beverages and/or coffee might be a usual choice, but fruit and vegetable-type juices would possibly help their systems better. Water and oil don't generally mix well so adding a bit of fruit juice to the water might help some of the burden on their systems. More chemicals from RX? Just be cautious.

    August 16, 2010 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
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