A long-term study of clean-up workers associated with the Prestige oil spill off Spain’s northwest coast in 2002 has been published and may provide data on potential health problems facing Gulf coast clean-up workers linked to the BP oil spill of 2010.
A new study, Health Changes in Fishermen 2 Years After Clean-up of the Prestige Oil Spill, was published late last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine and sheds light on long-term health issues surrounding oil spill clean-up workers.
The study was conducted by Spanish researchers with an objective of assessing “respiratory effects and chromosomal damage in clean-up workers” two years after their exposure to the oil spill.
Many of the workers were local fishermen who helped in the massive effort to clean the beaches along Spain’s Costa da Morta, or Coast of Death. About 20 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea when the Prestige broke open and sank along Spain’s northwest coast.
The researchers’ study found that persons participating in the Prestige oil spill were associated with “persistent respiratory symptoms, elevated markers of airway injury in breath condensate, and chromosomal damage.”
Of particular importance is the fact that the Prestige oil spill and BP’s debacle are significantly different. For one thing, the BP spill was about 10 times larger than the Prestige spill and lasted for months. Second, the BP spill was primarily light crude oil whereas the Prestige spill was carrying heavy fuel oil.
Michelle Nix/Project Gulf Impact
Containers of the dispersant Corexit stand unguarded near the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The BP catastrophe also relied heavily on the use of carcinogenic dispersants, to the tune of at least 1.8 million gallons, to help keep the oil submerged and away from Gulf coast beaches. Dispersants were not used as intensively on the Prestige spill. The BP spill also relied on collecting and burning surface oil, creating huge billowing clouds of black smoke spread over a vast area of the Gulf region by ocean breezes. This was not the case for the Prestige spill.
What makes the Prestige oil spill disaster unique is that, among the 38 supertanker oil spills which occurred during the last 50 years, it is the only spill to monitor oil spill clean-up workers long-term for illnesses
A similarity each spill shares is their severity. The Prestige spill is Spain’s largest environmental disaster and the BP calamity is the largest man-made disaster in US history, to date.
In her analysis of the study, Gina Solomon, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “This type of chromosomal damage has been associated with increased cancer risk and has been reported previously in other workers exposed to benzene, which is a constituent of oil.”
The study’s findings come at a time when evidence is mounting that pollution from the BP nightmare is contaminating Gulf coast residents and oil clean-up workers bodies. Blood tests on Gulf coast residents are now showing levels of exposure to toxic chemicals associated with crude oil and dispersants.
Among the chemicals beginning to make their mark are ethylbenzene, xylene and hexane.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has released its latest report on the health impacts related to the BP catastrophe, with data compiled through Sept. 4. It has found there were 399 reports of health complaints in the state that are believed related to oil spill and dispersant exposure. The general population constitutes 86 of that number and 313 associated with clean-up workers. Most frequently reported symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue/weakness, and upper respiratory irritation.
Solomon added in her analysis: “The bottom line is that we can’t assume that all the findings of this study will necessarily apply to workers in the Gulf, but the study certainly raises serious concern about long term respiratory and cancer risks to oil spill clean-up workers, and underscores the need to protect workers, provide them with access to medical care, and follow-up their health status in the future.”