The fiance of a colleague at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health is leaving for the Gulf of Mexico to help clean up the environmental damage caused by the continuing BP oil leak. He wonders if his health is at risk. The simple answer is that the disaster in the gulf is a significant threat to human health now and in the foreseeable future.
We need only look at the recent past to understand the human toll of such catastrophes.
Significant mental health problems among relief workers and in local communities have been well documented following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and terrorist attacks in Israel. The effects of stress reach well beyond the direct impact of lost lives or income.
For example, the disruption in the way of life of closely knit Alaskan Native communities caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill led to increased alcoholism, violence and depression. The massive oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will further tax the resilience of communities recently battered by Hurricane Katrina, and few in the region have faith in a quick fix.
Twelve workers died during the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig in the gulf. Recently, a fishing boat captain committed suicide, apparently because he was despondent at losing his way of life. Thousands of workers, many with little training, are now working in the cleanup.
The threat to workers extends well beyond the acute and possibly chronic effects of exposure to crude oil and chemical dispersant. Keeping workers safe is challenging during any emergency response, and is made all the more difficult when working in the heat of a Gulf Coast summer.
The toxicity of the major components of crude oil is relatively well studied. Fortunately, benzene, which causes leukemia and usually is of most concern, is volatile and expected to evaporate before reaching local communities. Benzene also degrades rapidly through natural processes and is unlikely to persist in the environment. It may affect cleanup workers, though.
Far less is known about the thousands of other components of crude oil, or about the potential human health effects of what is showing up in tidal waters or on beaches as tar balls — forms of weathered petroleum best described by the nontechnical term “gunk.” And what we do know about crude oil comes mostly from the study of male petroleum industry workers, which tells us little about vulnerable populations such as children or pregnant women. Because these effects are less well understood, they are more frightening.
The hopeful news is that we know more now about potential health effects of oil spills than when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, in large part due to studies conducted after spills in various places around the world.
We know worker training and effective local communication are crucial. But we still do not know as much as we should or could. Barriers to knowledge include difficulties in initiating health studies quickly enough; the involvement of different federal and state agencies which, although coordinated better than in the past, still tend to fragment information gathering and response; and litigation secrecy, a factor that greatly hampered our ability to fully derive lessons from the Exxon Valdez incident — lessons that could help us today in the gulf.
As we learn more about the value of nature to human health, whether it be hiking on Pennsylvania trails or feeling sand between one’s toes on a Gulf beach, we recognize that the definition of health is not merely the absence of disease, but the complete physical, mental and social well-being of individuals and society. Perhaps the most important lesson from the continuing disaster in the Gulf is in seeing the connection between human health and the environment.
The Deepwater Horizon well is doing more than releasing oil into the environment of the Gulf of Mexico. It is poisoning communities, residents and responders — physically and psychologically — in some ways we know and in many ways we do not know.