Oil Spills and Human Health: Lessons from History


The teams of relief workers currently working in the Gulf may face a host of oil-related health problems. Studies show that people who have prolonged contact with oil and oil products may experience negative physical and psychological side effects.

Oil spill clean-up brings workers and volunteers into close contact with chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health. As we deal with the oil spill in the Gulf, it helps to brush up on history.

After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported an increase in respiratory symptoms, headaches, throat and eye irritation, rashes and other skin problems among the clean-up workers. More recently, a study of beach clean-up workers and volunteers in Spain after a 2002 oil spill found an increase in DNA damage. The long-term significance of this finding is not yet known. In Alaska, a mental health study of residents one year after the spill found that exposed individuals were more likely to suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Here’s a summary of some of the scientific studies of the health effects to workers, volunteers, and local residents associated with five previous oil spills.

Exxon Valdez (1989)

  • According to NIOSH there were 1,811 compenstation claims filed by people involved with the spill. Claims were related to cuts, sprains, contusions, respiratory problems, and dermatitis.
  • 599 local residents were surveyed one year after the spill. They found that exposed individuals were 3.6 more likely to have anxiety disorder, 2.9 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, and 2.1 times more likely to be depressed.

For the rest of the summary, check out the full-length article at Grist.org.

Editor’s note: Article by Gina Solomon. Originally published by our friends at Grist.org. Grist is a media organization that has been dishing out environmental news and commentary with a humorous twist since 1999. Be sure to visit them and say hi, and follow Grist on Twitter, too!


Image: Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army