The dispersants used to break up oil during the BP oil spill can make people sick, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study included 31,609 response workers who handled and applied dispersants during the spill, or were in close proximity to the chemicals. The research team included scientists from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The new study is the largest ever conducted that examined the health effects of Corexit products. During the spill, 1.8 million gallons of Corexit EC9500A or Corexit EC9527A were applied in the Gulf. More than 700,000 gallons of that was pumped deep under the surface of the Gulf and applied directly to the stream of oil spewing from the broken well. The product had never been applied in this fashion before. But the lion’s share, more than a million gallons, was applied to oil floating on the sea surface.
The study concluded that response workers experienced a suite of symptoms as a result of exposure to dispersant chemicals. From the report, “The research team found that workers exposed to dispersants were more likely to experience certain symptoms – cough, wheeze, tightness in the chest, and burning in the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs – than those who were not exposed to dispersants.” In some cases, those symptoms disappeared in time after the spill. But some of the study participants believe their symptoms persist years later.
Dale Sandler, Ph.D., the lead GuLF STUDY researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, said the findings only apply to workers involved in the cleanup effort and not the general public. Dr. Sandler said:
The health effects that we see in the workers don’t necessarily apply to the community at large, although many of the workers live in affected areas.
During the BP spill, there was widespread concern among the public that limited exposure to the chemicals, even when applied 50 to 100 miles away, might present a risk. A number of people who billed themselves as toxicology experts traveled the Gulf Coast during the spill giving public presentations about the supposed risks, further increasing anxiety among residents.
Corexit and other dispersant products are designed to break oil down into tiny particles. The hope with applying dispersants was two-fold.
• First, by essentially sinking the oil below the surface, responders hoped to limit the amount of floating oil that ended up coming ashore in coastal marshes.
• Second, by breaking the oil down into small particles, it was made more available to the naturally occurring bacteria in the Gulf that specialize in eating oil.
Most scientists interviewed by Ben Raines believe the use of dispersants was successful in limiting the ecological impact of the spill. It also helped protect the marshes, as hoped. There is a saying among scientists, the dose is the poison. It means that toxicity associated with chemicals really boils down to how large an amount a person is exposed to. It falls to reason that workers who handled and applied the chemical would have a greater exposure than coastal residents who may have been dozens of miles away from the application sites. However, this study does not address what effects a more limited exposure might cause.
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