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Researchers study how Gulf oil spill will affect human health


NPR: Medical researchers are this week meeting in New Orleans to discuss how the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect human health. "The workshop was pulled together in a matter of days by the Institute of Medicine, a prestigious independent body chartered by Congress. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked for the review. Even though oil spills are fairly common, scientists at the two-day workshop say there's surprisingly little research on how they affect human health." One researcher says there have been 30 major oil spills since the 1960s and that studies looking at how they affect health are often small and without comparison between the groups of exposed and unexposed. But, while it's unclear for now what physical harm the oil can do, individual and community costs are large. After the Exxon Valdez disaster, "[p]eople in communities where the oil fouled the beaches had much higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety," some researchers say (Knox, 6/23).

Reuters: "Workers struggling in the heat to clean up oil from the ruptured BP well in the Gulf of Mexico risk short-term lung, liver, and kidney damage from fumes, experts said on Tuesday." Others say, however, that the oil itself, rather than the chemical exposure is "irritating but not especially dangerous to touch or even swallow, Dr. John Howard of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last week." Fresh oil fumes, however, can have ill short-term health effects on livers and kidneys (Fox, 6/22).

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service. It is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care-policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Workers clean the beach at Gulf Shores, Ala.