Images of oil-soaked birds and soiled beaches, combined with a general mistrust of industry and government, are making it hard for a skeptical public to believe there won’t be serious health effects from the devastating spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
For nearly seven weeks, local and national health officials have stressed that most medical risks likely will be mild and confined to workers exposed to oil and chemical dispersants at the source of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“The human toxicity of oil, it’s pretty low,” said LuAnn White, a toxicologist and director of the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Health in New Orleans, La. “It looks awful, it’s coating the birds, but the toxicity of those compounds is very low.”
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So far, that seems to be true. More than 20,000 workers have sent to the site, but relatively few have reported illnesses, including up to 11 who were said to be treated and released at a hospital in the past week with flu-like symptoms.
About 70 people in five Gulf Coast states have reported to poison control centers health issues they think are from exposures to the oil spill, with common symptoms including throat irritation, headaches, nausea, cough and dizziness, officials said. About 60 people have reported spill-related exposure complaints to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said spokeswoman Lisa Faust.
An msnbc.com poll of about 550 emergency room doctors in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida turned up one doctor who had seen a few patients with possible spill-related illnesses, none serious, mostly generalized malaise.
It's not clear whether the reported illnesses are actually related to the spill, whether they're related to environmental factors such as heat or fatigue, or something else entirely.
Little danger from tarballs, CDC says
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that tarballs now washing up on Florida beaches pose little danger and that exposure to small amounts of oil and dispersants is not harmful.
Still, that has done little to soothe worries among people who scoff at reports they believe downplay the seriousness of short- and long-term health effects.
“Yeah, the water isn’t toxic. Just like the land at the Nevada Test Site isn’t toxic either,” one reader posted on an msnbc.com discussion thread. “When [will] they stop all the lying? Shame on the government and BP. My honest advice is don’t swim.”
“You just keep on believing that garbage,” wrote another reader. “Ask the dying pelicans, porpoises and marine life.”
Part of the problem is the magnitude of the disaster, said White. So far, the deep-sea well has spewed roughly between 22 million and 48 million gallons of oil, according to government estimates. More than 2,700 vessels have responded to the scene and more than 1 million gallons of dispersants have been used to break up the leaks.
Then there are the heartbreaking images of oil-drenched animals.
“You respond to what you can see, to what you can smell and to the fear,” White said. “[People] think it must be poison because it looks so bad.”
There is logical reason to be concerned. Crude oil contains a mix of compounds hazardous to human health, including benzenes, which are known cancer-causing agents, and hydrocarbons, which have been linked to problems ranging from headaches to respiratory distress. Sweet crude is ranked as a 2, a moderate hazard, on the Hazardous Materials Identification System toxicity scale of 0 to 4, in which 4 is worst.
Corexit 9500, a dispersant being used in such vast amounts, is rated as a 1 on the HMIS scale, or a slight hazard, according to the product's Material Safety Data Sheet, which warns against contact with eyes, skin or lungs.
Critics such as the coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families charge that the dispersants have not been adequately tested and that the ingredients in the products have not been fully disclosed, obscuring potential health problems.
The worst health effects of oil exposure occur early and then diminish over time, White said. Volatile compounds in the oil, which are most toxic, evaporate quickly into the air. By the time oil reaches beaches, and becomes so-called "weathered oil," it has lost most of its toxicity. By the time it shows up as tarballs, the risk is even lower, she said.
Studies of dispersants have focused more on the effect on aquatic life than human life, White said. Though little is known about the long-term effects of the substance, she said an analogy would be the difference between people being exposed to dish soap residue after doing dishes versus dumping the stuff into a fish tank.
"It's not going to hurt you, but it might kill your fish," she said.
But White acknowledged that the public is viewing this disaster through the prism of the unknown — and fear.
"The anxiety level of everyone in this state is just unbelievable," she said.
Data from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska showed early reports of minor skin and respiratory ailments, but no long-term study was done. No one has tested the long-term effects of releasing dispersant in such vast amounts.
‘In God we trust, all others bring cash’
The problem is that the public can’t tell whom to trust, said Robert Emery, vice president for safety, health, environment and risk management at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
They don’t believe data from BP, the oil giant behind the spill, which so far shows no harmful evidence of volatile compounds in the air from the oil that could cause health problems. And they don’t believe government authorities who say exposure is likely not a problem.
Emery called for more extensive independent monitoring by a group like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has just begun to report limited exposure data on its web site and has yet to post information about worker illness and injuries.
“You’re in a situation where it’s in God we trust, all others bring cash,” he said.
Emery said he suspects actual health risks will be low, if not non-existent, and that many reported illnesses actually will be caused by heat, or exposure to diesel fuel used to run equipment or other factors unrelated to the spill.
Still, he said it's important, this time, to conduct vigorous long-term studies to detect — or rule out — health problems.
"As more monitoring results become available from a variety of sources, as the work goes on, a question would be: Were the actual exposures sufficient enough to warrant some kind of long-term health follow-up?"
But it’s not enough to simply spout science, said David Ropeik, author of the book “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”
Health officials and scientists would do better to acknowledge public mistrust of the oil industry, government and oil spills and to acknowledge the wrenching effects on animals and the environment. Perhaps then people would be more open to considering the actual health risks.
“The perception of any risk is a combination of the facts and how those facts feel,” said Ropeik.
For instance, some people would be horrified at the thought of eating fish from the oil-tainted Gulf waters. But federal health officials say adulterated seafood won't be allowed on the market. Even when known hazards, such as mercury, are detected in seafood, officials stress that it can take months or years of regular consumption of contaminated fish to accumulate toxins that are a health concern.
To many, that feels crazy.
"Even one drop of this stuff is bad news," wrote another msnbc.com reader.
For Merle Savage, no amount of expert spin can convince her that that the oil spill fallout will be safe. Savage, now 71, was a general foreman during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
While an early federal study of 11,000 workers involved in the cleanup showed few health problems, Savage said she has suffered from respiratory problems and other ailments ever since she first breathed vaporized oil particles.
“It’s déjà-vu, it’s all over again,” Savage said. “It’s so sad that it’s going to be the same thing repeated because nobody’s listening.”