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First study on humans and oil spill dispersants shows link to compromised health

Cleanup crews work to remove tar balls and patties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that washed ashore in Long Beach on July 7, 2010.
Cleanup crews work to remove tar balls and patties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that washed ashore in Long Beach on July 7, 2010. Sun Herald File

A new study shows that dispersants used to clean up the BP oil spill in 2010 may have been damaging to the health of some who were exposed to the chemicals.

The National Institute of Health published a study on Sept. 14 in Environmental Health Perspectives that shows workers exposed to the dispersants experienced a range of health symptoms including coughing, wheezing and skin and eye irritation. The NIH claims it is the first study to “examine dispersant-related health symptoms in humans.”

According to the study, “dispersants are a blend of chemical compounds used to break down oil slicks into smaller drops of oil, making them easily degraded by natural processes or diluted by large volumes of water.”

The chemical blend was used to clean up more than 210 million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010. There were 1.8 million gallons of dipsersants used in the cleanup. AL.com reports that more than a million gallons were “applied to oil floating on the sea surface.”

The study concluded that workers exposed to dispersants, especially those who handled or worked near the chemicals, 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.

Al.com reports that more than 30,000 people were used in the study, making it the largest one conducted. The study claims the compounds Corexit EC9500A or Corexit EC9527A were used in some areas where oil was present.

A 2011 study by Auburn University showed tar balls, remnants from the oil spill, had high numbers of vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio is also known as “flesh-eating bacteria” and has affected several people over recent years who have contracted it from the Mississippi Sound.

The NIH study shows no correlation between the dispersants and an increased vibrio presence in the Gulf.

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