Evidence Mounts of Continued Harm from the Gulf Spill

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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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

9 responses

  1. I stumbled upon your blog. I thought I might ad further comments of Nurse (Allison) Schmidt thats mentioned in the above article. She is a member of our Test The Rain Project Team. Here is an exerpt of her follow-up article to Riki’s article in the Huffington Post…

    “Alcanivorax Borkumensis genome was first sequenced in 2003 at the German Research Center for Biotechnology. In 2004 it was discovered that a specific gene of the genome AB was defective. In 2006, using isoelectrophoresis the gene was stripped and an artificial gene was inserted into the genome. The method is explained step by step here.

    Oil eating microbes secrete biofilms which studies have shown to be rapidly colonized by other gram negative bacteria and can indeed cause human infection. In other words gram negative bacteria causes Alcanivorax Borkumensis to grow and multiply at a very quick rate. See report (pg.97)

    The result is NOT pretty: Oil+ Dispersants+Genetically modified bacteria + Some of the most dangerous bacteria known to man = Unprecedented disaster in the gulf. We also know it has been found in the air, which means it will be evaporated and all that you see here will come raining down on us. Remember, the more knowledge you have the better prepared you will be to deal with this situation when it does occur.”

    You can read the rest of her article on our projects website here..http://testtherain.com/?p=1490

  2. I have a rash after swimming in the ocean at Panama City Beach and at Shell Island.
    It was itchy, at this time the rash is not red. But is spreading around my body.
    I took Benadryl, it dis make the itch atop, but the rash is still spreading

  3. I live in south Louisiana near the beach. We could smell it when they Ariel sprayed the oil. Many people here have heart issues and cancers. Is there any study going on to see what it has done to us. Crude oil is very toxic. The Corexit made it 52 time more toxic. Corexit was 1/3 as effective as other less toxic dispersants. Created by a subsidiary of BP and Campaigne contributions were more determining factors than science.

    The only money BP paid to solve the problem was givin to local parishes and could only be used to advertise to ‘come on down’. By law when someone spills they must dig down and around the area 10 ft, send off the dirt to have it decontaminated and replace the dirt. Then pay fines. BP did not have to do that. Only scrape the oil off of the top of the beach.

    Money talks and BP walked.

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