Protecting the Health of Those in the Gulf


For most Americans, the Gulf Oil Spill is something that we have been following in the news and have been complaining or praying about with our coworkers and friends. For those not living by the Gulf, it is not something that is endangering our health, wealth or lifestyle. Or is it? Certainly on this planet we are all connected, and what affects one, affects all. It’s just that some have it right in their face (literally), while others are further removed.

When the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred, I was soon amazed at how I started to have patients with relatives or friends who were fishing the area or were working the cleanup. Soon, I had a number of these people for patients and found out first-hand how working close to that oil spill caused such devastation for their health (and their livelihood).

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed a toxic assault on the ocean, the air and all of those living in and around it. The oil is loaded with hydrocarbons, solvents and heavy metals that are dispersed in the water, and have been released into the air with burning and evaporation. In addition, millions of gallons of chemical dispersant, also containing solvents, have been released into the ocean.

In the late 1980s, I ended up working with servicemen who got ill from their exposure to the burning oil wells in Kuwait in Gulf War I. These men had high levels of the heavy metal mercury, which is found naturally present in oil, as well as solvents from the oil itself (especially benzene, toluene and trimethylbenzene). Unfortunately, there were no tests to assess the level of hydrocarbons that these men were exposed to, in addition to the solvents and mercury. But, both mercury and the solvents are potent toxins to the brain and nervous system, so many of their symptoms were neurologic. In addition to fatigue, headaches, difficulty thinking and mood problems, some of them had tremors as well. They also had a lot of lung troubles because breathing all these chemicals caused a depletion of glutathione in their lungs and brought about some lung damage (which was fortunately reversible in my patients).

Repeated daily exposures to solvents can lead to a depletion in the body of the nutrients that are used in the pathways that metabolize these toxic compounds in order for them to exit the body. If these nutrients are being used up more rapidly than the body can replenish them through the diet, then the clearance of these toxic compounds from the bloodstream slows down. A number of amino acids can help those who are exposed to these solvents by providing the molecules that the liver needs to help clear solvents from the bloodstream. The most helpful, l-taurine, l-glycine, l-glutamine and N-acetyl cysteine, are available at most health food stores.

In addition to nutrient depletion causing a retention of solvents, about 50 percent of the general population has an important genetic difference in the ability of our liver to clear these toxins out. This genetic difference is found in one of more of the Phase 2 enzymes called glutathione transferases that are present in our liver. These enzymes will marry molecules of glutathione to toxins in order to make them more water soluble and easily excreted by the body. On average, 50 percent of us are deficient in one or more of these important enzymes. Those with this genetic deficiency are far more likely to develop neurologic problems with solvent exposure (especially serious “brain fog” or decreased cognition) than other persons. Fortunately, research has shown that even those with this problem can be benefited by consuming broccoli and other members of the broccoli family (brassica) daily (cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts).

Mercury levels can be assessed by your Naturopathic doctor (go to for one nearest you), or check out the referral list on my website. This is best done with sending in your first-morning urine for testing. If you have been recently overexposed to mercury by the oil burn-offs or by fish consumption, your baseline level will be in excess of 1.5 ug/g creatinine. Your doctor may then need to begin you on heavy metal chelation.

The aromatic hydrocarbons from the oil (by dermal contact or by breathing in fumes or smoke) are also quite damaging. They also cause a lot of respiratory problems from lung cancers to increased rates of asthma and allergies. Fortunately, broccoli (and relatives) can also be a help in this regard, as can the N-acetyl cysteine — a readily available supplement.

If you live in the Gulf area, consider doing some of what I recommended above. If you have friends or relatives in the area forward this to them and send them a care package. One of the companies that I have designed products for, Thorne Research (selling high quality pure supplements to physicians and pharmacies) has “adopted” one town and is donating products to help them maintain their health. After all, we are all connected.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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