Now and in the days ahead, it is critical to protect your children’s health and your own from the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people avoid close contact with the oil spill and the fumes that arise from the burning oil, especially if you or your children have asthma or any other respiratory or lung condition..
You don’t need to be among the oil spill cleanup crews to suffer health consequences from the Gulf oil spill. The CDC notes that people may be able to smell fumes from the oil spill from the shore, and that what people detect is from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and naphthalene.
Although the CDC states that “the level of vapors in the air will be below the level that can hurt you,” people may still experience headache, vomiting, or nausea. Exposure to even low levels of VOCs can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. People who have asthma may be more susceptible to the effects of inhaled VOCs. The agency also recommends parents contact their pediatrician if their children develop any symptoms associated with contact with oil or oil fumes.
Spending time on the beach, swimming, and fishes are traditional summertime activities, but in areas affected by the oil spill, people are urged to avoid touching any of the oil or tarballs they may find. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that tarballs are composed of crude oil that mixed with water to form an emulsion that can look like chocolate pudding. This emulsion is much thicker and stickier than the oil from which it was formed. As waves and winds break up this emulsion, it can form small pieces, called tarballs, that can be as small as coins or as large as pancakes.
Physical contact with tarballs can result in a rash or an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the oil, including hydrocarbons. Anyone who makes contact with tarballs should wash the affected area with soap and water, baby oil, or a safe cleaning compound like a cleaning paste available in auto supply stores. Solvents, kerosene, diesel fuel, or gasoline should never be used to remove the oil from a tarball.
People who are in the area of an oil spill should avoid outdoor physical activities, especially when it is possible to smell the oil and fumes. Close windows and doors at home and turn on your central air conditioner or use the recirculation mode to reuse indoor air.
Parents should monitor air quality reports in their area for any changes in wind direction and other weather changes. If oil is being burned, particulate matter from the burn may reach the shore. Particulate matter can get into the lungs and irritate throat and lung tissue.
The CDC does not believe drinking water and household water will be affected by the oil spill, although recreational water has already been impacted in some places. Everyone should heed any public health guidelines and warnings about the use of beaches and coastal waters for swimming, fishing, and boating.
Dispersants have been used to help break up the oil slick from the spill. For most people, brief contact with a small amount of dispersants should be harmless. However, longer physical contact can irritate the skin and cause rash and dryness, while the toxic chemicals can also irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs.
Parents who are concerned about exposure to oil or dispersants and its impact on their children’s health and their own should contact their physician. The American Academy of Pediatrics has information on its website regarding children and environmental disasters, and the CDC has information on its web site for healthcare providers. At this point, the best defense against harm from the oil spill is avoidance, especially for children.
American Academy of Pediatrics
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
This page is updated on May 18.