Health officials and scientists are gathering in New Orleans later this week to discuss the health hazards and the challenges that both the energy and healthcare industry will have to face as a result of the BP oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico.
Organized by the Institute of Medicine for the Department of Health and Human services, the two-day meeting will also discuss how best to watch for potential problems as healthcare officials believe that adverse impact on the health of those living in the region may be known only after several years.
The HHS department, which set aside $10 million to study cleanup workers and residents along the Gulf of Mexico over a period of time, has prepared a Q&A for those who want to learn more about the impact of the oil spill in the Gulf.
The HHS analysis indicates that most of the reported illnesses related to odors and fumes and were specific to people involved in the spill cleanup. A majority of the patients in Louisiana were workers while in Alabama there were 29 reports of ill-health caused by the spill.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has been monitoring the air shortly after the spill, has posted readings regularly and most show that the air around the region is fit to breathe. While residents have complained of an industrial smell onshore, officials confirmed that oily odor does not necessarily mean it is harmful.
The officials also circulated a brief asking people to avoid tar balls and splotches of oil on the beaches and asked residents to wash it off as soon as possible. Soap and water, baby oil and petroleum jelly were prescribed as the best ways to remove the stains.
As for the long term health impact of the spill, the health officials do not think it likely though they accept that pollution of this scale was happening for the first time. It is theoretically possible, but at this point of time not something that we would like to predict one way or another, says Dr. Thomas Miller, assistant state health officer with Alabama's health department.
Experts have suggested that some chemicals from the oil slick could be associated with cancer but it may take decades for an environmental trigger to result in the disease. Moreover, when cancer does occur, it is often difficult to pinpoint on the real cause. So, one cannot decide whether oil fumes inhaled over two months could be more of a cancer causing factor than cigarette smoke inhaled for ten years.