Health impact of oil spills — a medical dilemma | Arkansas Blog

Health impact of oil spills — a medical dilemma

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BEYOND THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Neighbors to this Mayflower subdivision where a pipeline burst report health problems and mixed results on medical and state regulatory response.
  • BEYOND THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Neighbors to this Mayflower subdivision where a pipeline burst report health problems and mixed results on medical and state regulatory response.
Inside Climate News has new reporting today on potential health risks from exposure to chemicals put into the environment in oil spills such as the Canadian tar sands that exploded from the burst ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower.

It speaks to residents near the break, though not the immediate neighborhood, who've been experiencing health problems. The article notes that there's been little to no outreach to families not in the 22-home subdivision most directly affected by the break, though fumes were clearly evident in a much broader area.

All three families live within a few hundred yards of the March 29 oil spill that sent more than 200,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil through Mayflower. Their experiences offer a snapshot of the confusion surrounding the health impacts of the spill, an uncertainty created by limitations in the science, physicians' lack of training in environmental health and a communication gap between local health officials and the people they are meant to serve. Like families who lived near two other large oil spills—the June 2010 spill in Salt Lake City, Utah and the July 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River—they are still searching for answers.

Because the three families weren't among the 22 households in the North Woods subdivision that state officials deemed to be most affected by the spill, they weren't evacuated or contacted directly by health officials. Instead, they stayed put, enduring foul odors and a host of health problems they believe were caused by the chemicals found in crude oil. Not only were their physicians unable to provide clear answers, but in some cases they also seemed unwilling to consider the spill as a possible culprit.

Long said she had to persuade her doctor to add chemical exposure to her medical history. Jarrell said she provided a printout of the petroleum chemicals detected by air monitoring equipment, but the doctor refused to look at it.

Health experts say it's virtually impossible to prove that a particular symptom was caused by the chemicals released during an oil spill. Respiratory problems, for instance, can be blamed on springtime allergies, and headaches explained by the stress of living through a spill. Some people are also more sensitive than others, so two residents could be exposed to the same level of chemicals, yet only one will show a response.

Howell Foster, director of the Arkansas Poison Control Center, said he has no doubt that Mayflower residents are experiencing real health problems. But "causation is very, very hard to prove…There isn't a smoking gun. It's not that simple."

Some of the tests, such as analyzing benzene levels in urine, are expensive and rarely used by primary care physicians, he said. In addition, most doctors have little training in diagnosing or treating chemical exposures. Physicians who specialize in that field tend to live near industrial hot zones such as the Texas Gulf Coast.

The article discusses also whether Arkansas standards for benzene are strong enough; the need for more reporting of potential problems to the state poison control center, and complaints about responsiveness of state agencies.

REMINDER: Inside Climate News and the Arkansas Times are embarking on a joint reporting project on the Mayflower spill and aftermath. Tax-deductible contributions to the project can be made here. We're about halfway to the $25,000 goal of the project, which will pay costs for reporters for the Times and Inside Climate Watch to work full-time in Mayflower on issues related to the accident.


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