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Health Risks of the Oil Gusher

I still have t-shirts in a drawer somewhere from the 1980s: “Everything You Know is Wrong,” “They are LYING to You,” and “Question Authority.”

These came to mind when I see that everyone who fancies him or herself an “authority” on the deep-sea Gulf oil gusher–spokespeople from university medical schools, government agencies, and the oil industry itself–mainly trying to “reassure” us.

As threatening as the oil spill may look (as it now approaches the size of the entire upper Midwest), they say it’s actually not harmful to your health. What’s gushing out at a rate of potentially 2.5 million gallons a day is “sweet crude,” listed as a 2, toxicity-wise, out of 4 (most toxic) due to its content of chemicals including benzene, which does cause cancer.

And then there’s this: “If it went on uncontrolled, it could certainly leak for two years and certainly longer than that,” according to the University of Alabama’s Philip Johnson, professor of petroleum engineering.

They tell us these volatile compounds are supposed to evaporate quickly and “disappear.” This is supposed to be reassuring, and maybe if the spill were the size of your dining room table, the amount of evaporating benzene would be negligible, but this spill is, well, a lot bigger. (Before we sent this health tip to you, methane was cited as another real risk. It’s hard to keep up.)

If the thought of hurricanes hitting the spill, lifting up the oil-water-dispersant sludge, and raining it over the southern states sounds grim, don’t think it hasn’t crossed a lot of minds. One point scientists do agree on: no one knows exactly what would happen.

I remember swimming with my family on Florida’s east coast some years ago and when we emerged from the ocean, we were coated with thousands of tiny black specks. Every 50 yards or so on the beach there was a tank holding detergent so that everyone could wipe the specks off. We all did so, worried a few days, and when no one became ill, pretty much forgot about it, but never went back into the ocean.

That oil came from a tiny oil spill that occurred several months earlier. I think it’s safe to say that swimming in the Gulf is pretty much history. On a related note, Newsweek published a piece called What The Spill Will Kill. It’s not pleasant reading.

The issue with the dispersing agent defines corporate irresponsibility and greed. Press releases from Nalco Holding Company, manufacturer of the controversial Corexit 9500 and 9527, state the product is not toxic. In fact toxicity studies have never been done, but previous users reported a wide variety of physical symptoms after exposure, which Nalco denied. Moreover (brace yourself), Nalco is embedded with folks from BP and Exxon . BP was told by the EPA to use a less toxic dispersant than Corexit (others are available from competitors), but thus far BP has refused to do so. Expect to read about all sorts of heart, respiratory, and blood diseases among the workers trying to clean up the spill.

I do believe that the university and government toxicologists, epidemiologists, and public health physicians are trying to give honest answers based on the available evidence. But no one has ever encountered a situation like this, so they’ve likely been instructed to put a positive spin on it whenever they can. Just like Americans were endlessly reassured that the Nevada atomic bomb testing was “harmless” until years later people started getting leukemia, no one–no matter how expert–really knows for certain the long-term health risks of this gusher and its cleanup.

Anyone want to borrow one of my T-shirts?

Concerning seafood consumption. Apparently contaminated seafood will never find its way to your grocery. The US government announced it has started seafood safety sampling . Even if your dinner contained some residual oil, the amount would be very small and you’d have to eat a lot of it before anything measurable appeared. By comparison, despite the anxiety about mercury in fish, at WholeHealth Chicago we measure mercury levels in concerned patients and virtually never find any.

One of the most significant health risks, in my view, and one that is not being addressed, is the state of high anxiety for the millions of people living along the Gulf who have no idea what’s going to happen to their livelihood and their lives. I think we’re going to be seeing the same epidemic of major depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and all the accompanying physical problems (insomnia, headaches, TMJ, fibromyalgia, IBS) that occur when any major catastrophe, natural or manmade, strikes a population.

Maybe Mother Earth is trying to tell us that this should be the end of the internal combustion engine. “If you keep needling my body for oil, I can and will make it even worse for you.” Signed, Gaia.

Leave a Comment


  1. dan krause says:

    Dr. Edelberg:
    Brushing aside your obvious leftist perspectives in your analysis of the oil spill, I had to comment on your concern about the “state of high anxiety” caused by the oil spill. And I would sum it up by saying, “Well isn’t that too bad!”
    I mean, why should we worry about the high anxiety of people who don’t like to look at oil, and whose pampered toes have heretofore only trod on pristine white sand? Have we turned into a nation of wimps? Go back in history and examine any of the major upheavals in human society, and you won’t find many references to a major concern about the resulting “anxiety.” As that old bumper sticker tells us, and by the way, you can get a lot of good philosophy from bumper stickers, anyway this one said; “shit happens!”
    And so it does, Dr. Edelberg. There is a ton of shit flying around all the tiime, and every once in awhile, some will land on your clean shirtt. So you suck it up and get on with life.
    On the other hand, I think every oil company person who played a role in this drilling project, whether it was planning, equipment purchases, or safety design, and this would include those congress people who worked so hard for oil-supporting policies, people like Dick Cheney, should be made to spend some time , say six months, working on clean-up. In Cheney’s case, I think I would have him out there with a broom and shovel for at least a year; and put him up in a local Motel 6, where they can leave a light on for him.
    Thank you for giving me the chance to vent, Dr. Edelberg. I really enjoy your newsletter, despite your leftist leanings.

    D. R. Krause
    A Satisfied Patient

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