Oil Spill Pollution Diseases

Oil and petroleum products have many volatile compounds that are emitted into the soil as gases whenever oil spills occur. After the spill, the air becomes contaminated with those volatile oil products or vapors producing specific odors. Once in the air, contamination may travel over long distances if the original contamination levels are high. Even when the vapors are not felt, if the oil spill pollution contaminants reach the residential areas (by water, air, and/or soil), the residents of the affected areas may come in direct contact with oil and/or oil products while walking on a contaminated area (e.g., beach), and develop skin irritations, absorb oil particulate matter through the skin, breathe the polluted air and develop a number of diseases. Even if the oil spill does not reach the residential areas, residents may still be exposed to contaminated food. This is especially problematic since residents of any area could be exposed to oil spill pollution (if they consume food coming from a spill affected area) even if they live far away from the oil spill location.

Specific testing should be conducted to determine the specific threats to human health immediately after oil spills. Such testing may involve collecting water, soil and sediment samples, as well as checking the quality of indoor air. The samples are checked for total petroleum hydrocarbons distillates, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and/or classes of compounds. Many commercial laboratories in the U.S. have a series of standardized testing for such determinations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other various state agencies may conduct specific studies following oil spills in order to determine the extent of the spill and ensure that adequate oil spill cleanup follows.

Please check the United States Environmental Protection Agency page for more information about oil spill studies and testing.

Short Term Diseases and Symptoms

Some components of oil called volatile organic compounds may cause lung irritation. The contact of skin with oil and dispersants may cause dermatitis and increase the risk of skin infections. Other common symptoms that appear after the direct exposure to the oil spilled are:

Along with the symptoms listed above, other conditions may appear after the direct or indirect contact of the residents with the oil spill. Oil spill pollution affects the local residents in various ways, and this way they develop various forms of psychological or physical conditions. Some of the most common are emphysema, heart problems, depression, DNA alterations, neurological impairment, post-traumatic stress disorders, stomach illnesses, genotoxicity and endocrine toxicity.

Long Term Diseases

The prolonged exposure to environmental pollution - especially air and water pollution - caused by oil spills may result in an increased risk for developing the following conditions:

Melanoma - Although it is a less common form of skin cancer (but its incidence is increasing), melanoma is probably the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It usually develops in white people over the age of 60, but it may also affect younger people of other racial descent. Pollution may act indirectly or directly (through skin contact) to cause melanoma, and animal tests have shown that the exposure to high doses of pollutants causes skin cancer faster than the small doses exposure.

Skin Cancer - Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer. It is the cancer of skin cells consisting of changes in skin appearance or abnormal growth of skin cells in the affected area - with or without bleeding - that fail to heal or disappear. Skin is the most exposed point of entry of many pollutants in our bodies. Thus, the development of a series of skin conditions (including cancers) should not be surprising. Yet, the magnitude of pollution effects is still to be determined.

Lung Cancer - Lung cancer is the second most common malignant disease, with over 200,000 people being diagnosed every year in the U.S. It is also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths, killing approximately 160,000 Americans each year. Although tobacco smoking is directly responsible for a large number of lung cancer cases, exposure to environmental pollutants has been found to greatly increase the risk of developing lung cancer.

Liver Cancer and Hepatitis B/C infections on fatty liver tissues

Leukemia - Leukemia is actually not a single cancer type, but a group of different cancers of the blood cells that develop in the bone marrow and affect the blood's white cells. Some forms of the disease affect children, but most of them affect adults. Leukemia affects the tissues of the body that forms cells by increasing the white cells in abnormally high levels that cease to function properly. This is important because the white blood cells have an essential role in the immune system, protecting the body from viruses and bacteria. A recent study has revealed that young people with leukemia or other rare cancer forms more often live near oil and gas sites or in the area near an oil spill. Also, those diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia are 4.3 times more likely to live in areas polluted by oil.