Posted 11 July 2011, by Brian Moench, Billings Gazette, billingsgazette.com
Residents of Salt Lake City are, unfortunately, able to identify with the frustration and anger in Montana over the Exxon pipeline oil spill on the Yellowstone River. Last year, Red Butte Creek and Liberty Park Lake — beautiful natural icons in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City — were spoiled indefinitely by two Chevron oil pipeline leaks within six months. The consequences will be felt for years and hundreds of residents ended up in doctors’ offices and hospitals.
One part of the “oil spill” discussion that continues to be inadequately addressed, if not completely ignored by the media, government officials and most certainly the oil companies is the health consequences of exposure to the oil. In news reports of the Yellowstone River spill, last year’s spills in Utah, the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and the BP oil spill in Louisiana, virtually no mention has been made of the hazards of contact with the oil either through the skin or inhalation of the the toxic compounds volatilized from the oil. A recently published study in one of the world’s most respected medical journals is relevant to all these events both for the cleanup workers and exposed residents.
The study, published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, demonstrated that oil spill workers from a 2002 tanker oil spill off the coast of Spain may suffer long-term health consequences. To quote the authors’ summary of the research, “Two years after participating in cleanup efforts oil spill, exposed fishermen had increased prevalence rates of respiratory symptoms suggesting persistent airway injury. In addition, they had more structural chromosomal abnormalities in circulating lymphocytes. Our findings indicate that exposure to oil sediments, even for short periods, may have detrimental health effects.” The type of chromosomal damage found in these workers is often used in environmental studies and is an early marker of genotoxicity and is associated with an increased risk for cancer.
In using this information to assess what is appropriate follow-up for these exposed workers, the authors said, “Because the possibility of a higher risk for cancer in exposed workers cannot be excluded, a surveillance program in the target population would be appropriate. Follow-up studies to evaluate persistent respiratory health effects, chromosomal damage, and the development of cancer in these individuals for longer periods are currently under way.”
In this study the definition of “exposed worker” was someone exposed for only four hours a day for 15 days. Some of these workers had the benefit of respirators, and most were healthy young adults, the least vulnerable of all population subsets. Furthermore, the oil cleanup during this study occurred in November and December when lower temperatures would have decreased the release of volatile organic compounds from the oil and reduced the health risk compared to circumstances at the Yellowstone River.
Lobbying for study
We have seen news reports showing Exxon cleanup workers not using respirators. We have seen interviews with residents along the Yellowstone River complaining of overpowering oil fumes in their homes and on their property, but apparently no Montana health officials have issued warnings or called for evacuations of residents, even children or pregnant women. If so, this is negligence in the extreme on the part of Montana health officials and Exxon.
Compared to healthy young adults, children and fetuses are at much greater risk from oil-related toxic inhalants like benzene, a known carcinogen. While of concern in its own right, the biochemical evidence of chromosome damage found in the oil spill workers in Spain would be of much greater concern in children and women of child-bearing age.
The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has publicly called upon state officials and Chevron to pay for a longitudinal healthy study of residents who where exposed to the spills last year in Salt Lake. Montana state officials should demand the same from Exxon.
Dr. Brian Moench of Salt Lake City is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Copyright 2011 The Billings Gazette.