Back in May, I interviewed two prominent scientists about the impact of the Gulf Oil spill. One was, Terry Hazen a microbiologist at Lawrence Berkley Lab and the other was Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist from Alaska, who became an activist after the Exxon Valdez spill. Hazen predicted that micro-organisms would play a major role in the aftermath of the spill as oil-eating bacteria would experience a population explosion, which would help absorb the spill to some extent. He cautioned against the use of dispersants except where absolutely necessary to protect extremely fragile shoreline areas.
Ott, concerned about an aftermath as devastating as the one after the Valdez spill or worse, rushed down to the Gulf to investigate and is there still. She has been tracking a significant outbreak of medical problems among people who have been in contact with the Gulf water. Primarily she has seen persistent skin rashes that do not respond well to any kind of treatment. While they have commonly been misdiagnosed as bacterial in nature, (e.g. staph infections) or parasitic (e.g.scabies), there is growing evidence that the cause of these rashes are chemical in nature.
Residents and visitors have reported that they have “developed a rash or peeling palms from swimming, wading, handling oiled material or dead animals without gloves and shucking crabs from recently re-opened Gulf fisheries.” Some have even reported symptoms after swimming in their outdoor pools after a rain.
Criticizing the heavy-handed use of dispersants before Congress, former NOAA Chief Scientist Silvia Earle said, “The instructions for humans using Corexit, the dispersant approved by the EPA to make the ocean look better warn that it is an eye and skin irritant, is harmful by inhalation, in contact with skin and if swallowed, and may cause injury to red blood cells, kidney or the liver. People are warned not to take Corexit internally, but the fish, turtles, copepods and jellies have no choice. They are awash in a lethal brew of oil and butoxyethanol.”
William Rea, MD, who founded the Environmental Health Center-Dallas, and who treated a number of sick Exxon Valdez cleanup workers, said, “When you have sick people and sick animals, and they are sick because of the same chemical, that’s the strongest evidence possible that that chemical is a problem.”
Ott claims that the government, BP and local business people all want to downplay the problem and pretend that the spill and all of its impacts are over.
Speaking of the health problems she’s encountered, she said, “It’s not just skin rashes and blisters. At community forums, I commonly hear from adults and children with persistent coughs, stuffy sinuses, headaches, burning eyes, sore throats, ear bleeds, and fatigue. These symptoms are consistent across the four Gulf states that I have visited. Further, the symptoms of respiratory problems, central nervous system distress, and skin irritation are consistent with overexposure to crude oil through the two primary routes of exposure: inhalation and skin contact.”
The situation is complex, making it difficult to establish a single factor as the leading cause which is why some authorities have called it an “eco-toxicological experiment.” In addition to the oil and the dispersants, you also have oil-dispersant combination which behaves differently than either item on its own. Then, you have the bacteria.
The Gram-negative oil-eating bacteria have a component of their double-membrane cell wall structure that can irritate human skin, causing inflammation and activating the immune system. In some cases, like Alcanivorax borkumensis, the reaction can erupt on the skin like an MRSA infections.
Ott continues, “To make things a little scarier, some of the oil-eating bacteria have been genetically modified, or otherwise bio-engineered to better eat the oil — including Alcanivorax borkumensis and some of the Pseudomonas. Oil-eating bacteria produce bio-films. According to Nurse (Allison) Schmidt, studies have found that bio-films are rapidly colonized) by other Gram-negative bacteria — including those known to infect humans.”
The combination of bacteria and oil is particularly troublesome, because exposure to oil is known to weaken the immune system.
Is this some kind of “perfect storm”? Ott thinks it might be, with “an exploding population of opportunistic Gram-negative bacteria (some natural, some not), millions of gallons of food (oil) for the bacteria, and a susceptible population of stressed-out people?”
She closes her posting with this reflection, “If the outbreak of skin rashes across the Gulf is any indication, the health care providers, media, and Congress ought to be taking a hard look at this question. Further, people ought to be connecting the dots to illnesses that surfaced in Exxon Valdez spill responders and to the illnesses occurring now in Michigan residents coping with the Enbridge oil pipeline spill.”
As for the rest of us, we need to be aware of these new hazards associated with our fossil fuel dependency even as our elected officials in Congress continue to equivocate on the subject. It took a lot of heat and pressure over millions of years to make oil out of dead dinosaurs. Now tremendous heat and pressure is being applied to our elected officials in Washington to ensure that the oil keeps flowing, whatever the cost and whatever the risk. See any parallels?
RP Siegel is coauthor of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
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