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How Shockingly Little We Know About How Oil Spills Affect Our Health

We know how to sponge oil off pelicans. But when it comes to human health, we’re alarmingly clueless.
 
 
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Vaccum operations (EPA)
Photo Credit: EPA

 
 
 
 

More than 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines currently snake through the U.S., overseen by only 135 inspectors from the Transportation Department’s regulatory agency—a safety system the top pipeline safety official recently  described as “kind of dying.” That’s particularly alarming considering plans for new pipelines such as the Keystone XL, which, if approved, will increase the mileage of oil-bearing pipes in the U.S.  by 1,700 miles and carry millions of gallons of particularly toxic tar sands oil right through the heartland of America. A spate of U.S. pipeline ruptures in recent years underscores how ill-prepared we are to address the health needs of residents following oil spills, and how poorly we document the health impacts so as to develop better responses to future spills.

When ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured last March and flooded a Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood with an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy crude oil, our  National Contingency Plan (NCP) for responding to hazardous substances, including oil spills, was set into motion.

In a nutshell, this is how the plan operates: The company that spilled the oil works with federal, state and local agencies to stanch the flow, and then eventually begins the daunting task of cleaning up the mess. All parties work in concert to monitor air and water quality, which is supposed to limit residents’ exposure to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals found in the oil. The Environmental Protection Agency is the official on-scene coordinator for inland areas, the Coast Guard for coastal or major navigable waterways.

You may notice what’s missing from this plan: what happens when people actually get sick. The plan doesn’t prioritize responding to the acute, chronic and long-term medical health of exposed local populations—including prompt screening for baseline signs of disease, which public health experts say is crucial for both proper medical treatment and effective research on human health effects. That’s left largely up to state and local agencies, which invariably don't have the expertise or the resources to adequately carry out the task. So in spill after spill, emergency responses vary, citizens often suffer the health consequences with little or no recourse, and there continues to be a dearth of data on the health impacts.

Public health experts with experience in oil spill response who spoke with  In These Times stressed the need for the NCP to utilize the type of specialized medical teams that are sent to areas during such disasters as catastrophic storms or infectious disease outbreaks.

“That's where the gap is,” said Aubrey Miller, a senior medical advisor and captain in the U.S. Public Health Service who helps coordinate intergovernmental relations on health and medical matters, and who is an expert on the inner workings of the NCP. 

Asked by  In These Times to comment on the medical and scientific gaps in its plan, the EPA replied in a statement: “An On-Scene Coordinator leading and/or supporting an oil spill response can access assets such as those available through HHS [Health and Human Services] and its agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Public Health Service, and Disaster Medical Assistance Team.”

In other words, the EPA could bring in medical teams with specialized knowledge of the health risks associated with oil spills. But according to Miller, “in reality” that's not in the plan’s budget. On the rare occasion that medical emergency teams are brought in, he says, they do not comprehensively and systematically attend to the medical health needs of exposed populations or provide timely screening of disease markers for research purposes.

Shockingly little research exists in the U.S. on the long-term health effects from oil spills. This may come as no surprise considering that traditionally much of the funding for studies related to oil spills is provided by oil companies, who can influence everything from a study's parameters to its timeliness.

 
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