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Potential Health Problems Related to Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico

doi: 10.1097/NNE.0b013e3181ed8233
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As we continue to follow the consequences of the April 20, 2010 oil spill impacting the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding areas, nurses, nursing students, and nurse educators should become familiar with possible consequences to human health related to this environmental disaster. Federal and state officials will need the cooperation and assistance of nurses to deal with consequences that may not be readily predictable and will emerge over time.

Potential short-term problems related to exposure to crude oil include respiratory irritation, skin rashes, and headaches. Based on current knowledge, a serious long-term problem would occur if the oil contaminates either food or drinking water supplies. Fortunately, numerous government agencies work to ensure that this does not occur.

The smell related directly to the oil spill leads to burning eyes and nausea.1 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors respiratory irritants, including ozone and soot particles. People with chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma or emphysema, need to be cautious regarding exposure to these irritants.1 Crude oil itself releases volatile organic compounds that produce ozone when combined with nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere.2 Fires used to burn the oil off the surface of the water emit an irritating smoke.2 Of course, air currents and weather conditions impact dispersion of these irritants. Nurses need to assist persons with chronic respiratory conditions in understanding precautions to take under these conditions.

State systems closely monitor water quality and food safety. The Food and Drug Administration,3 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service work together to monitor seafood and shellfish from regions that are impacted by the oil spill. Areas affected are closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting and will remain closed until the seafood is analyzed to be safe for consumption. Of course, we need to consider the economic stress these closures mean to people who rely on seafood or shellfish harvesting for their livelihood.

The EPA and state agencies also closely monitor the quality of drinking water. The EPA notes that if a person accidentally drinks oil-contaminated seawater and experiences nausea, vomiting, or dizziness, he/she is advised to seek medical attention.1 Health and Human Services also explains that people working to clean up oil spills, both professionals and volunteers, experience psychological hazards. These problems can result from traumatic injuries, witnessing the impact of the oil on wildlife, the inability to help affected wildlife, and physical and mental fatigue.4

When this article appears in print, we will still be learning of the health, emotional, and economic consequences of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how healthcare professionals can best assist those involved. A review of what we as nurses can do during environmental emergencies is a good precaution. The reference section below provides useful links to government agencies.

Source: Flesher J. WEB FIRST: Gulf of Mexico oil spill may endanger human health officials say. Register Citizen. May 7, 2010. Available at Accessed May 18, 2010.

Submitted by: Robin Pattillo, PhD, RN, News Editor at


1. CDC. 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Information for coastal residents. What to expect from the oil spill and how to protect your health. Available at Accessed May 23, 2010.
2. CDC. 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Frequently asked questions. Available at Accessed May 23, 2010.
3. US Food and drug Administration. Gulf of Mexico oil spill update. Available at Accessed May 23, 2010.
4. Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: health related information. Available at Accessed May 23, 2010.
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