While the rapidly expanding Gulf oil spill presents a serious danger to the local ecosystem, the oil itself poses little harm to the public, according to scientists and numerous government organizations. Oil can cause a rash if it contacts the skin, but oil by itself cannot kill or seriously harm a human.
And you'd have to eat ungodly amounts of fish exposed to the gunk to have any health effects.
“This is an ecological event, rather than a human health problem,” LuAnn White, a professor of environmental health and toxicology at Tulane University, told LiveScience.
Oil is composed of both volatile chemicals that quickly escape into the air, and the denser chemicals that are made of chains of carbon and that form the gooey slick made famous by the Exxon Valdez spill. Neither component is dangerous.
Some of the volatile chemicals are associated with increased cancer risk, but exist in such a low concentration in the air that they pose no risk to the public, according to White. Many citizens of New Orleans began worrying about the health effects of the spill last week when the scent of oil pervaded the city, but the human nose can detect the presence of these chemicals at levels far below anything considered dangerous, White said.
The viscous gunk most people associate with oil spills is similarly benign. The slick can cause a rash when it touches exposed skin, but that’s the worst of its effects, a 2005 U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report concluded. White corroborated that assessment, noting that the oil was no more toxic than many cosmetics.
Additionally, most of the flammable chemicals have already evaporated, negating any fire risk from oil that washes ashore, White said.
Similarly, ingesting seafood covered in oil poses no serious risk either. Oil-coated seafood tastes like oil, so most people limit their intake. Even shellfish, which accumulate oil at a greater rate than other fish, present no hazard to humans. And if one did continue eating spill-tainted seafood, the oil would pass harmlessly through their system, White said.
“You would have to eat an awful lot of contaminated fish for about 70 years to be at risk from that,” White said.
However, despite the spill posing little danger to humans, workers at the spill site, and the state of Louisiana, are still taking precautions.
Cleanup crews wear long pants and long sleeves to minimize skin contact with the oil, and the state of Louisiana is prepared to close beaches if the oil washed up in significant quantities. Louisiana and NOAA has also halted fishing in the areas of the Gulf affected by the spill, but that has more to do with preserving the quality of the seafood and ensuring future economic productivity in the fishing industry than preventing any health problems, White said.