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The Gulf Oil Spill. Crisis as Catalyst Series Edward A. Emmett, MD October 2010. History of Offshore Oil Releases and Explosions. Natural Releases Oil & Gas Exploration and Production Events Multiple with Differing Oil Types Exxon Valdez Spill (heavy thick oil)

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the gulf oil spill

The Gulf Oil Spill

Crisis as Catalyst Series

Edward A. Emmett, MD

October 2010

history of offshore oil releases and explosions
History of Offshore Oil Releases and Explosions

Natural Releases

Oil & Gas Exploration and Production Events

Multiple with Differing Oil Types

Exxon Valdez Spill (heavy thick oil)

Prestige Oil Spill off Spain

explosion and oil release deepwater horizon offshore drilling rig
Explosion and Oil Release Deepwater Horizon Offshore Drilling Rig

Rig Explosion

In Gulf of Mexico 42 miles offshore from Venice LA, 5200 feet undersea

Explosion April 10, 2010 kills 11 workers, injures 17 others, destroys rig

Subsequent Oil-Leak

Difficult to know exact volume of leakage, Estimated Total 4.4 + 20% Million Barrels (1bbl =42 gallons)

Likely ~68,000 barrels per day

Light Sweet Crude (low viscosity)


Video image June 10, 2010 shows oil continuing to pour out at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photo/BP PLC)

response to spill
Response to Spill

Rescue and Recovery

Cleanup Efforts

> 1 M Gallons Proprietary Dispersants Used

Burning Surface Oil


Booms and Physical Barriers

Initial Attempts at Capping Unsuccessful, Finally Capped July 15

2,500 Skimming Vessels including ~2000 “Vessels of Opportunity” (local boat operators) on Gulf by June 10 2010


A controlled oil burn is seen near the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Sunday, July 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


Support vessels surrounding the Helix Q4000, the vessel being used to perform the static kill operation, Aug. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

oil exposure
Oil Exposure

Oil - Complex Mixture of Hydrocarbons

Oils all contain similar compounds, but proportions differ

(Deep Water Horizon- Light Sweet crude)

Components Include

Straight and branched chain hydrocarbons

Aromatic Hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, xylene etc)

PAH and homologs

Sulfur, some heavy metals

Residues- asphaltenes (road tar)

Alkyl Homologues of PAH and other aromatics – not measured by standard EPA methods

weathering of oil in ocean
Weathering of Oil in Ocean

Initially the lighter components (shorter aliphatics, benzene, etc) are lost to the column of water and surface evaporation. About 50% of column has been lost when it surfaces.

Emulsification results in “red mousse’ appearance

Weathered oil S.G. ~similar to water -> buoyancy rising to surface, forming plumes, sinking.

Dispersion enhanced by chemical dispersants (proprietary sulfonates).

Biodegradation (oil-eating microbes) , photo-oxidation.

Burning will form pyrolysis products (PAH, particulate matter)

Tar Balls from Deepwater horizon after a few days on beach are not sticky and almost odorless.


A blob of oil floats from the Gulf of Mexico into the mouth of the Mississippi River near Venice, Louisiana, on May 17.


Tourists watch as Steve Gardner of Mobile scrapes oil from the sand along a 700-yard long strip of oil in Gulf Shores, Ala., Friday, June 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

potential categories of hazards related to gulf oil spill response efforts
Potential Categories of Hazards Related to Gulf Oil Spill & Response Efforts

• Chemical (e.g., oil, dispersants, degreasers, soaps)

• Biological (e.g., plants, animals, insects, remediation materials)

• Biohazardous debris (e.g., syringes on shoreline)

• Workplace injuries (e.g., slips, trips, falls, cuts)

• Ergonomic stresses (e.g., repetitive stress, low back pain)

• Heat stress, sunburn, and fatigue

• Fires (including exposure to particulate matter) and explosions

• Psychological stress

• Drowning and injuries from underwater diving

• Noise

• Electricity

potential toxicity of oil
Potential Toxicity of Oil

7 Studied Supertanker Oil Spills in last 50 Years

  • Acute eye and throat irritation, transient declines in pulmonary function, “neurologic” (nausea, vomiting, headaches), and psychological (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress) symptoms.
  • No liver, kidney, long-lasting respiratory effects
  • Transient DNA damage without cytotoxic changes from Prestige spill, , increased in volunteers, users of high-pressure machines

Physical injuries- especially associated with bird cleaning

No long-term follow-up studies of Exposed Groups

Specific components of concern PAH, benzene, dispersants etc

potential routes of chemical exposure to humans
Potential Routes of Chemical Exposure to Humans
  • Dermal
  • Respiratory
  • Ingestion
    • Contaminated seafood
    • Drinking contaminated water
vulnerable groups and vulnerabilities
Vulnerable Groups and Vulnerabilities

Potential Vulnerable Groups




Mentally stressed

Community Vulnerability including post Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, Environmental Justice Communities in Gulf Region

Potential for Hurricanes/other weather events to disturb/disperse oil columns


Sand blows across a tiger dam on beach as outer edges of Tropical Storm Alex approach the coast, Grand Isle, La., June 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

spill some important health effects
Spill: Some Important Health Effects
  • Deaths/Injuries in Rig Workers
  • Acute irritation effects
  • Heat Stress
  • Psychological Stress
  • Long-term exposure effects?
surveillance health effects
Surveillance - Health Effects

Syndromic Surveillance

Data on sets of symptoms that may be exposure related.

States: Hospital , ER and Urgent Care Centers (e.g. FL ESSENCE)

CDC: BioSense data from DOD, VA facilities

Reporting Surveillance

Reports from Poison Control Centers (real-time), Physician Clinics, others

Investigation of Suspected Clusters

surveillance health effects21
Surveillance Health Effects

State Syndromic Surveillance Findings

AL ERs: 29 exposure related visits in coastal Zone(18 inhalational, 8 dermal, 3 ingestion)

LA : No increase in asthma or respiratory illness

MS, TX No increases

State Reporting Surveillance

AL: 57 mild (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rash), 9 moderate. 50 Inhalation, 12 dermal, 4 ingestion

17 on barge ill from CO produced by malfunctioning generator

LA: 108 rig or cleanup workers,35 public (headaches, nausea & throat irritation

CDC Syndromic Surveillance Findings 0 to date

heat related problems
Heat Related Problems

Heat-Related Conditions

Heat Stress

50-75% increase in unsafe behaviors

Worse outcomes in non-acclimatized

Increased associated injuries

Exertional Heat Stroke

Heat Fatigue

Effect of cumulative exposures, impact not well understood

Increased Vulnerability

Gulf summer environment


Personal Protective Equipment

Acclimatization may be assumed

Pathways for Communication and information about heat avoiding behaviors

exxon valdez mental health consequences
Exxon Valdez: Mental Health Consequences

Several Studies somewhat hampered by protracted litigation

Oiled Mayors Study

  • Exposure = direct contact with oil, damage or property loss, 7 disruptions to social and economic activities
  • Increased Odds Ratios for high v low exposure for General Anxiety Disorder (3.6), PTSD (2.6) and Depressive symptoms (2.1)

Other Reports; increased use of social services, drug abuse, domestic violence, decline in traditional social relations

Traditional Alaskan Natives, cleanup workers, women, families and children most vulnerable

childhood vulnerabilty to stress post katrina
Childhood Vulnerabilty to Stress Post-Katrina
  • Children exposed to long-term persistent stress without strong mitigating parenting (resilient, stable), likely to suffer irreversible effects with increased medical conditions in adulthood.
  • 2001 WTC attacks followed by increased anxiety and PTSD.
  • Post Katrina:
    • 75% of affected children demonstrated serious psychological issues
    • 4X rate of serious emotional disorders
    • 2X likelihood of too old for grade
gulf early mental health effects
Gulf: Early Mental Health Effects
  • Unique Gulf Factors
    • Retraumatization – Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, recent GEC
    • Population diversity – ethnographic/cultural
    • History; fishermen, tourism, Southern culture
  • Long-term Studies Post-Katrina Establish Baseline
  • Early Reports
    • Increased domestic violence, drug offences, focus groups reveal increased suspiciousness, arguments, depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol consumption
crisis as catalyst selected issues
Crisis as Catalyst – Selected Issues

Status of Surveillance Systems

Research Needs

Communications Leading to Preventive Actions

  • Agency and Federal-State coordination improved over Katrina
  • Some improved responses but groups such as volunteers not well dealt with.
  • Slow response on some items eg commencing research data gathering.
  • Risk communication confused “what was the health message”
  • Others still to be learned…
health surveillance needed improvements state perspectives
Health Surveillance- Needed Improvements- State Perspectives

Surveillance systems in place before Disaster were useful

Issues and needs

  • Voluntary, unvalidated Reports
  • Link to exposure? Nausea, headaches from heat stress or exposure?
  • No monitoring for silent, unlikely to be attributed eg hypertension, cardiovascular events
  • Inadequate mental health monitoring
  • Resident/worker status undefined
  • Occupational groups may not be included
  • Workers from Interstate, where reported?
  • Poison Control Calls to Rocky Mountain Center
  • Federal funds for “episodes” not infrastructure
risk assessment and communication
Risk Assessment and Communication


Many vested interests who benefit (politically, economically) from different messages or spin.

Animosity towards authorities, fears of losing job if complain

Lab-rat weary populations, distrust of research not leading to actionable outcomes

Conflicting Foci

Actionable information –provides information that guides specific actions or decisions?

Communicate uncertainties -determines what new information is needed, overriding concern for scientific and agency accuracy

research learning from this event and the aftermath
Research - Learning from This Event and the Aftermath

NIH – Long Term Epidemiologic Study

  • Slow response to disaster ?
  • Research Consortia being encouraged
  • $10M from NIH, Government Epidemiologists to lead

Additional Research funding from BP

$50M per year for 10 years

~10M /yr for Health -Mechanism of distribution yet undetermined

Address Specific Important Questions

Heat Stress Prevention?

Answer Questions of Community Concern?

Legal and Ownership Impediments to Data Acquisition