The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has many people fearing the environmental impact of pumping 210,000 gallons of toxic oil into a large marine ecosystem.
But if the oil rig’s fluid-control systems fail, the expanding oil slick may also become a human health threat.
Little attention has been given to preparing for the worst-case scenario – a catastrophic failure of the BP Deepwater Horizon wellhead and fluid-control systems. Right now, the leaking oil pipes slow the amount of oil released by the rig. Should they fail, the oil slick could increase by 60,000 to 160,000 barrels per day – that’s the equivalent of one Valdez every two days.
Many reports declare the human health risk minimal, but environmental attorney Stuart H. Smith of Smith Stag Law Firm, who is currently pressing a class action lawsuit against BP on behalf of commercial fishermen and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, points out that oil slicks have made people sick in the past.
For example, in 2003, when the Greek tanker Tasman Spirit spilled more than 35,000 tons of oil along seven miles of highly-populated coastline, local hospitals reported more cases of headaches, nausea and dizziness.
How do oil slicks affect human health? Expert toxicologist Dr. William Sawyer names three primary risks:
1. Repeated contact increases the risk of skin cancer and other maladies.
2. As oil releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nearby populations may develop upper respiratory irritation and neurological effects.
3. The oil could create higher ozone levels. In urban areas, ozone levels in excess of 40 parts per billion are associated with increased morbidity and mortality.
It’s absolutely essential that volunteers and local populations prepare in case the worst should happen. Smith’s lawsuit will ask that BP, as well as Halliburton, Transocean, Anadarko Petroleum, MOEX Offshore, Cameron International and their subsidiaries, provide training and safety equipment, including VOC respirators, to the volunteers responding to the spill.