Oil Spills impact human health

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Oil spills involve health risks not only for volunteers involved in cleanup, but community members in the area. In spite of this, it was only after a few major oil spills that studies were performed on effects of exposure to oil spills on diverse aspects of human health.

One of the main health effects from an oil spill is said to be stress. (Carly Sjordal, KTVF)

One of these was a national study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health called The GULF Study.

Dale Sandler, one of the principal Investigators in the GULF study is researching more about the health of those effected by oil spills.

Sandler has found that people who clean up the spill are more at risk. Problems could include skin and eye irritation, neurologic and breathing problems, and stress.

"We found that people who were exposed to the burning of the oil had reduced lung functions compared to individuals who didn't work on that aspect of oil clean up,” said Sandler.

In communities living in the vicinity of the oil spills, there was consistent evidence in a separate study of acute toxic effects among exposed residents.

But Sandler reports that one of the main health effects from an oil spill, is stress related. "The number one health effect that we observed is increased levels of depression and what looked like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in people exposed to the oil, and those helping the clean-up. It does suggest that communities need better preparation and greater access to healthcare services when something like this happens,” reported Sandler.

Though not much is known about the long-term effects of oil spills, Sandler says that there is a common link between cancer and the kind of toxins found in oil. He says he is keeping a close eye on the cancer centers in gulf areas.

The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Center and the Gulf Research Program hope to study how communities can prepare for such disasters.

Since 2018, they have been holding workshops across gulf coasts, and recently held one in the Anchorage area.

Citing the report, Alaska attendees said researchers and spill responders should better include the public with a mind to be culturally appropriate.

According to Davin Holen, one of the researchers, communication is one of the most important aspects: "Communities want to be more aware of these efforts because they see an increase in ship traffic like in the Bering Sea for example, and they want to know what plans are in place if something should happen."

Finally, Sanders says that although workers and community members can protect themselves with gear and avoiding affected areas, more research needs to be done to find out how this can be a less distressing event for the local communities.

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