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Can the BP Spill Cause Miscarriages and Birth Defects?

The ability to fight against toxics is not fully developed in the womb and in children.

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 anywhere 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 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 into 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.

It is also important to understand that 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, making the study of this issue extremely complex. 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, he said via a phone interview. And 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.'"

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