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Chemical dispersants used in oil spills cleanup linked to health issues: study

Deepwater Horizon
Photo: landbysea/iStockphoto

Durham, NC – Workers exposed to oil dispersants during cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster are likely to experience respiratory issues and other health problems, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health.

Oil dispersants are chemicals sprayed on a surface oil slick to break down the oil into droplets that more readily mix with water.

Between 2011 and 2013, the researchers studied nearly 33,000 cleanup workers and volunteers in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill through the Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study. GuLF STUDY participants completed enrollment interviews and submitted to subsequent home visits that included medical assessments, collection of biological samples and one follow-up interview.

After excluding some participants for insufficient data, NIH researchers analyzed more than 28,000 workers for respiratory problems, more than 27,000 for skin problems and more than 29,000 for eye irritation.

Workers who had contact with dispersants, either directly and indirectly, were more likely to experience coughing or wheezing; burning in the nose, throat and lungs; chest tightness; and/or burning eyes.

Many workers who participated in the GuLF STUDY reported feeling symptoms during cleanup efforts but not at the time the researchers began interviewing them. A small percentage of the workers said their issues remained after the start of the study. Another round of follow-up interviews is scheduled for this fall, the study states.

“While symptoms are not disease, many people who worked on the oil spill underwent a stressful experience,” Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is leading the GuLF STUDY, said in a press release. “Some of them are continuing to not feel well, and we don’t know what factors are contributing to it. The ongoing GuLF STUDY research is important for shedding light on the potential health impacts associated with an oil spill.”

The study was published online Sept. 15 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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