Reproductive Health Concerns in the Aftermath of the Gulf Oil Disaster


This piece was originally posted on Truthout and was used with permission.

Imagine that you are a woman living on or near the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps, you are pregnant or hope to be soon. And, perhaps, your partner is one of the fishermen who has been helping to clean up from the BP oil disaster. He comes home at night coughing and barely able to breath and his skin is irritated from contact with the oil.

Will exposure to the toxic chemicals in the oil and/or in the dispersants damage his sperm or your eggs, perhaps making it difficult to conceive? Could the chemicals damage the embryo you already carry, cause a miscarriage or birth defects? Is your newborn baby or young child at particular risk? Should pregnant women and children living near the Gulf take special precautions? And what if you don’t even live near the gulf, could your reproductive health be impacted as well?

While all of these issues are valid concerns, there has been no substantive effort to address them in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. According to Dr. Riki Ott, a marine biologist who has worked extensively to study and raise awareness about the impact of oil spills on both the environment and on people, the ability to fight against toxics is not fully developed in the womb or in children and, as a result, these populations are particularly vulnerable. “Pregnant woman and children should not be anywhere near this,” she said in a phone interview.

Of particular concern are ingredients in the oil and in the dispersants that may be endocrine disruptors which, according to the National Institutes of Health, “are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife … Research shows that endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming … Young children should not be allowed near the beach where they could come into direct contact with the oil.”

Further, “Some of the volatile chemicals in oil have been linked to miscarriage, preterm birth and low birth weight, so it is a good idea for pregnant women to avoid the areas where there are elevated levels of VOCs in the air. These are areas that include noticeable smells of oil or visible oil and also any areas where the EPA monitoring system detects elevated levels. The EPA air monitoring results are being updated regularly. To be cautious, pregnant women may choose to avoid any areas directly along the waterfront and beachfront, even when oil is not visible.”

To fully understand the danger that the oil and the dispersants pose, it is necessary to know what chemicals each contain. Unfortunately, Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Gina Solomon points out that even BP doesn’t know what all of the ingredients in the dispersants are because the manufacturer is allowed to refer to them as proprietary ingredients, which as Solomon says, “means that the public has no access to the full ingredients lists of these products, or any ability to independently verify their safety.”

Dr. Ott also notes that very little research has been done on the long-term health repercussions of exposure to the ingredients in oil or dispersants. One of the few available studies looked at those exposed to oil during the cleanup of the Prestige oil spill. The study found significant cytogenetic impact and recommended further study.

There are a myriad of factors regarding exposure to toxins that impact the extent and type of damage they may wreak on the human body.

According to Dr. Ted Schettler M.D., M.P.H., the science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, there are three ways in which toxins enter the human body: direct contact, inhalation and digestion. In an article about the Exxon Valdez spill, the Anchorage Daily News explained, “Whether a person’s health is damaged by exposure to a toxic substance also depends on the dose, the duration of exposure … Some scientists take it a step further and argue that exposure to multiple hazardous substances at the same time creates an unknown complex toxic reaction. They call it ‘multiple chemical sensitivity.’”

In terms of reproductive health, some of the known ingredients in the oil and dispersants should definitely be cause for alarm. According to the Material Data Safety Sheet for Benzene, an element of oil, “benzene is carcinogenic to humans. Chronic inhalation of certain levels of benzene causes disorders in the blood in humans, including leukemia (cancer of blood forming organs). Benzene specifically affects bone marrow (the tissues that produce blood cells). Aplastic anemia, excessive bleeding, and damage to the immune system (by changes in blood levels of antibodies and loss of white blood cells) may develop. Several occupational studies suggest that benzene may impair fertility in women exposed to high levels. However, these studies are limited due to lack of exposure history, simultaneous exposure to other substances, and lack of follow-up.”

Corexit, the dispersant that is being used by BP contains 2ButoxyEthanol, which “may damage the developing fetus. There is limited evidence that 2-Butoxy Ethanol may damage the male reproductive system (including decreasing the sperm count) in animals and may affect female fertility in animals,” according to the safety sheet.

Richard Dennison, a senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund says that Corexit is one of the most dangerous dispersants there is for shrimp and fish, according to the EPA.

“There’s no question the ongoing spill at Deepwater Horizon is a life-threatening condition, and emergency measures are in order. And BP has said it chose Corexit because of the large stockpile, though its cozy relationship with Nalco (the company that makes Corexit) has been invoked as a factor as well. Considering the massive public costs of this unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf, we should seriously question why, despite the clear opportunity for foresight via the contingency plan, BP is being allowed to use dispersants that are neither the most effective nor the safest. And we should also question why EPA hasn’t used its emergency powers to force disclosure of all of the components of the Corexit dispersants. There couldn’t be a clearer case of the need for EPA to exercise its mandate to disclose proprietary information when necessary to protect public health and the environment.”

Environmental writer Elizabeth Grossman is also concerned because, “The toxicity of the combined oil and dispersants and their effect on human health has yet to be determined. (There are no existing consumption safety standards for these dispersants if they’re found in seafood.) There are also questions about health effects of combined exposure to the chemicals that make up crude oil and the strong UV light of the Gulf. Another area of concern is health risks posed by particulates resulting from surface oil burning and from volatile compounds – organic solvents and sulfides among them – emanating from the floating oil now making landfall. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) warns that even at low levels there can be adverse health impacts from these airborne contaminants.”

While it seems clear that the most immediate and likely most serious risk to human reproductive health would take place among people living close to the Gulf of Mexico, harm for those who live further inland or even across the ocean cannot be completely discounted. In September, 2008, Hurricane Ike blew into the Midwestern United States. Given that we know from acid rain that chemicals can move far from their original locations, I asked Matt Milosevich, a meteorologist at WLKY-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, a city that was declared a disaster area after being severely damaged by Hurricane Ike, whether he thought it was possible for severe weather such as hurricanes to bring chemicals from the Gulf inland. “Since there is an evaporation process to the normal biodegrading of oil, you can assume that whatever the oil evaporate is, that some may get into rainwater from storms. Also, to what degree or amount? I would assume only trace amounts, but that is just an assumption,” Milosevich said. And given that dispersants are being used in unprecedented amounts and that at this time we do not yet know where the water currents will carry the oil or dispersants, there is a great deal that we do not yet know in terms of areas beyond the immediate Gulf area that will be impacted. In addition, a NOAA fact sheet points out that storms may indeed distribute the oil itself over a larger area or bring the oil further inland.

Congressman Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) summed it up well in a written statement about the oil disaster, “The reality is we know almost nothing about the potential harm from the long-term use of any of these chemicals on the marine environment in the Gulf of Mexico, and even less about their potential to enter the food chain and ultimately harm humans,”

When I first began to ask questions about whether the oil or the dispersants used in the Gulf might be a threat to reproductive health, the people I spoke with responded by telling me that it was a good question. While the question might be good, unfortunately, the available answers are not.

Despite the fact that we know that some of the ingredients involved are toxic and can make people sick and have been identified as chemicals that may damage reproductive health, there are few studies and very little data available to provide answers. Although the National Institutes of Health has stated clearly that the oil spill poses a potential threat to pregnant women and young children, very little attention has been given to this warning and there is no reference to it on the Deepwater Horizon Response web site.

The bottom line is that we don’t know if the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will impact reproductive health because, despite some anecdotal evidence, there is little data to go on in large part because the companies responsible have been allowed to keep that data from the public and, in the case of this particular spill, we don’t even know what all the chemicals involved are. It would seem that in light of that, we would be well advised to follow the Precautionary Principle, which states, “Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

In practical terms of addressing the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we should insist that the EPA force the disclosure of the ingredients in the dispersants and that research be immediately commenced to study the full health impact of these chemicals, including reproductive health. BP should also be compelled to make fully available all health data of workers who have been exposed to the chemical soup that they have poured into the Gulf. And in the meantime, until proven otherwise, pregnant women and young children should take heed of Dr. Ott’s words and the National Institute of Health’s statements regarding these dangerous chemicals and do what they can to stay away from the oil and the dispersants.

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