/ News & Insights / Implications for Human Interaction Related to Crude Oil Exposures

Implications for Human Interaction Related to Crude Oil Exposures

Clarann Hull, Robert J. Blackburn

An offshore oil platform at sunset.

There has been significant interest in following last year’s Gulf Oil spill related to human interaction and cleanup for local government workers and volunteers.  While there has been very little information related to this subject documented in the federal or state records, we have seen various types of personal injury claims which may be a harbinger of things to come.

The first question that we have been asked is “What have been the light crude oil exposures to the environment in the event of this spill?” Crude oil is generally composed of hydrogen and carbon and is usually found underground, but can also be found above ground in oil seeps or tar pits. Our review is related to the underground light crude oil located under the Gulf of Mexico.  Light crude contains volatile organic compounds which evaporate, losing up to 10 to 15% of its volume immediately, and up to 25% of its volume within 24 hours. When oil was spilled in the Gulf, it initially spread primarily on the surface of the water. Then it was spread in oil slicks with toxic dispersant materials, which drifted toward the States along the Gulf coastline, primarily Texas and Louisiana.  The action of waves, water currents, and wind forced the oil slicks and related toxins to drift over large areas, affecting the open Gulf water, coastal areas, marine, and terrestrial habitats in the path of the drift.

Oil that contains volatile organic compounds partially evaporates, losing 20 to 40 percent of its mass and becoming denser and more viscous. Generally, over time oil waste deteriorates and disintegrates because of exposure to sunlight and biodegradation. The rate of biodegradation depends on the availability of nutrients, oxygen, and microorganisms, as well as temperature.  It is too early to determine the exact nature of the oil and related waste, and how it will affect the environment for many years to come.

How have these exposures manifested themselves in humans interacting with the cleanup operations? There have been a host of issues related to volunteer cleanup including allergic reactions, development of dermatitis or a skin rash, even from brief contact with oil.  For more prolonged skin contact with the oil, volunteers have experienced skin erythema (reddening), edema (swelling), and burning. In some cases, the skin effects have been worsened by subsequent exposure to sunlight, because trace contaminants in the oil, such as the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are more toxic when exposed to light.  The most significant short term issues have involved skin contamination, wound contamination, ocular exposure, ingestion exposure, and inhalation exposure.

What preventive measures were taken during the cleanup of the Gulf Oil spill? From our research, very little was done to provide organizational workers and volunteers with the necessary personal protective equipment necessary for their immediate and continuing efforts.  According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Plans (SPCC), there is a need to provide training and personal protective equipment to persons involved in cleanup of oil spills, among a host of other measures.  Our anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that many local organizations were not prepared to meet the need outlined in the regulations.  In some cases, masks, gloves, and boots were provided to first responders.  It is unclear after the initial response if there has been any continued coordination of the requirements outlined in the Oil Spill Prevention Regulations, US 40 CFR Part 112.

For those exposed to oil during the cleanup with no safety measures, what did they experience during that time?  Keeping volunteers safe during a catastrophe is difficult. Although workers and those certified to clean oil spills must be well trained (by law OSHA has very clear guidelines). There normally is a small faction of the general public and volunteers who will respond to disasters. Generally, because oil is considered less toxic when it reaches land, volunteers exposed to the non-floating oil are considered a little “safer” than those exposed to the mousse (or oil mixed with water). Where the Gulf Oil spill is concerned, there were volunteers who ran to the scene long before the experts were available and a proper assessment of the spill had been completed. Doing this placed these individuals in a high risk category for exposure to potential toxins without proper protection.

According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine  regarding the physical effects of oil spill exposures, volunteers complained of nausea, vomiting, chest pain, dizziness, fast heart beats, skin rashes, scrapes, bites from birds, animals and breathing problems. Another health affect that occurred and took this writer by surprise, were the psychological stresses placed on volunteers. Several of the volunteers experienced depression, exhaustion, sun burns, anxiety, hopelessness, and temperament changes.

It’s become imperative that we teach the public about the dangers of exposure to toxins and what people can do to prevent self harm. This way, if they do choose to help, they are aware there is a potential danger and protective gear is necessary prior to “jumping in” if you will.  A wonderful thing is that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association) has already provided us with the information on how to guard against potential exposures to toxins. Now, it’s time to teach the public or those that would volunteer so they can protect their children and self while providing a helping hand.

What are the short and long term toxic implications to humans from the exposure to the cleanup?  The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is currently undertaking the Gulf Worker Study (GuLF) which will investigate potential short and long term health effects associated with the cleanup activities of the oil spill among organizational workers and volunteers involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Reportedly, over 55,000 persons have participated to date in cleanup activities related to the spill. Crude oil, burning oil, and the dispersants used during cleanup efforts contain a range of known and suspected toxins. Exposures to persons involved in cleanup range from negligible to potentially significant, especially for workers involved in tasks associated with direct exposure to crude or burning oil, or to chemical dispersants. However, NIEHS’s prediction of adverse health effects is not possible at this time.  The potential health effects associated with the levels of exposure experienced by cleanup workers are largely unstudied. Heat and stress experienced by these workers may also have adverse long-term health effects. Besides the oil itself, the widespread economic and lifestyle disruption caused by the oil spill may contribute to mental health problems among this population. Stay tuned, since the results of the study will likely provide a roadmap of the long-term human health consequences of this oil spill.

So, what have we learned from this catastrophe?    In an Enterprise Risk and Wellness Management program, the corporation (or organization such as a local municipality) must establish an emergency response policy, authorities, responsibilities, and procedures for actions before the event.  Ample personal protective equipment is necessary before employing persons to a spill site.  Noted below is a simple checklist for your use in planning your SPCC and wellness programs.

  • Responsible Personnel
  • Spill Reporting
  • Project and Site Information
  • Potential Spill Sources
  • Pre-Existing Contamination
  • Spill Prevention and Response Training
  • Spill Prevention
  • Spill Response
  • Project Site Map
  • Spill Report Form(s)

Eleven people died during the Gulf oil spill, with many more people continuing to suffer from the exposure to oil and related dispersant material toxins.  No one quite anticipated the length of time the leak would continue. Further, no one knew the physical effects the exposure would have over a prolonged time.  A ten year research study is currently underway to study the short and long term effects.

In catastrophic events, such as the World Trade Center (WTC) where large amounts of people are exposed to toxins and knowledge of all of the toxins involved is nearly impossible to calculate, it’s paramount that we prepare and share with the public what measures can be taken to protect their person such as protective masks, protective gloves, clothes that protect from the sun and toxins and taking time to rest during their volunteer effort. Creating an environment where volunteers can go and discuss the effects of the work they have done may help to decrease the psychological factors involved with stress of helping clean the oil spill. So much is dependent on common sense and preparation of the volunteer.

Education before the event is the most beneficial. Perhaps employers could assist in this area and provide teaching materials on what to do if you should choose to volunteer for any catastrophic event. (Thus preventing an episode like the Deepwater Horizon or WTC where several were exposed or had the potential for exposure)

The Gulf area is now laden with health issues due to the spill. Providing educational information through media sources, such as telecommunications, or webmail, even instant messaging and Twitter could become information avenues for teaching, especially the young.

Another possible remedy to the problem of exposure and its consequences would be to provide as many people as possible with the guidelines established by OSHA.  This link may be of interest and benefit to others:

Training Marine Oil Spill Response Workers Under OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration OSHA 3172 2001    http://www.oilspillvolunteers.com/docs/OSHA_HAZWOPER_Oil.pdf

Education, planning and training alleviate most risks in life, including accidental oil spills.  We hope that organizations will internalize what our families have always taught us which is, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.


i – Picture Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BP_Oilspill_June25.2010.jpg
copyright US Federal Government.

ii – See http://emergency.cdc.gov/gulfoilspill2010/light_crude_health_professionals.asp.

iii – See

The Gulf Oil Spill   Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., Howard J. Osofsky, M.D., Ph.D., and Maureen Y. Lichtveld, M.D., M.P.H.  N Engl J Med 2011; 364:1334-1348   April 7, 2011


  iv – See http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/PublicHealth/FedResponseOilSpill/GuLF%20Study%20Protocol%209-7-10.pdf

About the Authors

Robert J. Blackburn founded Blackburn Group, Inc. in 1991 as a company specializing in marketing products and services for the risk and insurance management field. At the time of the company’s inception, Mr. Blackburn designed and developed a specialized risk management information system with associated services called RiskPro® to analyze and manage an organization’s operational and human resource risks. Mr. Blackburn may be reached at [email protected], or at +1 (585) 586-4530.

Clarann Hull, RN, MSCC, CCM

Clarann Hull is co-author of the book; Ending Hospital Readmissions: A Blueprint for Homecare Providers.  She is also owner of Juris Educational Resource Knowledge for Legal Nurse Consultants which is a network of legal nurses who provide both written and verbal expert opinions.  Clarann may be reached at [email protected] or 919-858-0417 or [email protected]_hullgroup.com.


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