Officials Warn of Oil-Related Health Hazards to Louisiana Residents

The massive oil slick drifting ominously in the Gulf of Mexico has state officials worried for the health of Louisiana residents who live along the coast. Since April 20, when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and subsequently sank, oil has been flowing into the Gulf at a rate of up to 200,000 gallons per day. The fact that the oil has not yet reached land is largely the result of favorable winds and currents, both of which are subject to change at any moment. As of Friday afternoon, underwater robots had begun positioning a four-story tall, 100-ton box made of concrete and steel over the gushing well on the sea floor. The device will permit crews to recover most of the oil from the well, but it will not entirely stem the flow. It will also do nothing to address the oil that has already escaped and looms ever closer to the coast.

According to an AP story carried by Yahoo News on May 7, state and federal authorities are gearing up to deal with the many hazards to human health that will result if and when the oil reaches land. Officials are advising coastal residents to take precautions now. “We don’t know how long this spill will last or how much oil we’ll be dealing with, so there’s a lot of unknowns,” Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana’s state health director, said. “But we’re going to make things as safe as humanly possible.”

Last week, in what many saw as a preview of things to come, a foul stench drifted over parts of lower Louisiana. According to Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the oil was likely to blame. Levine’s office received numerous complaints, some from state legislators in New Orleans, who were more than 130 miles from the epicenter of the disaster.

According to the AP report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun 24-hour air quality monitoring in coastal areas and is now posting the readings online for ozone and airborne particles like soot. These materials are irritants that can cause respiratory distress in humans, particularly those with chronic conditions such as asthma or emphysema. Also, fires being set deliberately by the Coast Guard to burn off oil on the water are producing acrid smoke that could cause problems for those who come into contact with it.

The health symptoms for exposure to the oil leak are simple and simple actions can prevent problems caused. Public health agencies are advising residents near the coast who experience nausea, headaches, burning eyes or other discomfort to remain indoors, close windows, and turn on air conditioners. People who must be outside should take care to avoid exerting themselves.

Clean drinking water and a safe seafood supply are also a concern. The Louisiana Health Department has ordered testing of municipal water systems near the Gulf for signs of oil. Some coastal cities, including New Orleans, source drinking water from the Mississippi River, which so far has shown no signs of oil contamination. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard is inspecting boat traffic on the river and will order any ships with oil-coated hulls to be scrubbed down. Health officials have pronounced fish, shrimp, oysters, and other Gulf seafood that have already made it to market safe to eat. “If we see increases in hydrocarbons or other contaminants, we’d stop the flow of seafood,” Levine said. The major immediate risk from eating contaminated seafood is gastrointestinal sickness. However, given that oil contains carcinogenic compounds, officials are concerned about fish from oily waters reaching consumers.

Please return to this blog often for further health updates from state officials.