If you’ve followed the news about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast for the past month and half, if you’ve seen the tragic images of oil-soaked or oil-coated animals, or learned of the climbing toll of dead and injured birds and marine animals, you’re probably concerned about how much threat this oil disaster poses to our health. Although a few experts claim its toxicity is minor to humans, such advice does little to ease public worries and fears.
Good news: The initial testing of water showed negligible contamination, and the government tried hard to stop the seafood from Gulf regions from becoming distributed into the marketplace.
Anticipated news: Clean-up status? More testing results? Health risks to the public primarily stem from contaminated seafood and inhaled airborne oil toxins. Because hurricane season is approaching, the concern is that oil hazards carried by winds and ocean currents could threaten widespread regions along adjacent shorelines or estuaries.
Bad news: The impact of spill will last years in terms of environmental, economic, and public health consequences.
The truth: The seriousness of long-term health effects on people is inconclusive at this point. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), airborne toxins after an oil spill include toluene, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — all of which are known carcinogens.
What’s the connection with cancer risks?
Crude oil contains a mixture of hundreds of different hydrocarbons, other organic and inorganic, as well as toxic substances. Some of them are carcinogens (i.e., cancer-causing substances), from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and benzene to tar and more. Others cause neurological and reproductive disorders, as well as skin and lung illnesses. Today, let’s just focus on one of them — Benzene. It is known to cause cancer in humans, particularly leukemia.
What is benzene?
Benzene is a colorless, aromatic, highly flammable liquid. It evaporates into air very quickly and dissolves in water slightly. Benzene is used widely in the U.S. (one of the top 20 chemicals for production volume) as a building block for plastics, rubber, resins, nylon and synthetic fabrics, and as a solvent in printing, paints, dyes, detergents, dry cleaning, and pesticides.
What are the sources of benzene in our daily lives?
- The air at gas stations, since gasoline fumes contain relatively high levels of benzene.
- The air emitted from burning coal and oil, and motor vehicle exhaust.
- Cigarette smoke, since benzene is a natural part of tobacco smoke.
- Indoor air from products containing benzene (e.g., glues, paints, detergents, furniture wax).
- Occupational exposure — people working in industries that make or use benzene.
The takeaway message: The impact of health hazards from Gulf oil spill might be minor to populations residing far from the tainted shorelines. But you don’t need to be exposed to a disaster to become exposed to any harmful chemicals released from it. Some of the same carcinogens, such as benzene, occur in our everyday environments, whether you live in New Orleans or Seattle, Florida or Alaska. Become aware of the chemicals you run into on a daily basis.
Tip to share: Air pollution is a reality, whether we’re discussing outdoor or indoor environments; that’s why an air purifier is so essential! I’ve personally benefited from it. Use air purifiers in any space where you spend a significant amount of time, especially for pregnant women, those who suffer from asthma and other respiratory disorders, and those with a weakened immune system.
What’s your thought?
Photo: Before and after cleaning of the Gulf oiled pelican — credit to International Bird Rescue Research Center