Experts are working to anticipate, outline and minimize the potential health risks of the Gulf oil leak, says Nalini Sathiakumar, M.D., Dr.P.H., an associate professor in UAB's Department of Epidemiology who is part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ad hoc team formed to plan and execute research strategies to examine health outcomes.

Nalini Sathiakumar is working with other experts to anticipate, outline and minimize the potential health risks of the Gulf Oil leak.
The Deepwater Horizon accident has leaked the equivalent of a supertanker spill into the Gulf of Mexico every week since April 20, says Sathiakumar, who was part of an Institute of Medicine panel of health experts who met in New Orleans in June to discuss repercussions.

"We need to move quickly to monitor and study the physical and psychological impacts in the short and long term among clean-up workers, volunteers and in adults and children, and we need to follow these with long-term studies," she says

While some of the short-term health effects are known - watery and irritated eyes, skin itching and redness, coughing and shortness or breath or wheezing - there also are many unknown health effects, says Sathiakumar, who has researched a prior oil spill. Even tourists, beach-goers and seafood lovers will face some risks going forward, she says.

The CDC is reviewing the sampling of data to determine whether exposure to oil, oil constituents and/or dispersants might cause short-term or long-term health effects. These data include sampling results for air, water, soil, sediment and oil material reaching beaches and marshes.

About 400 tanker spills have occurred since the 1960s, and 38 of them involved supertankers, including the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska. But only seven of those supertanker spills have been studied, and those examined the short-term toxic and psychological effects with limited analysis of the long-term effects.

Sathiakumar investigated a large spill, the one that resulted when a Greek supertanker ran aground in 2003 off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. An investigation of the Karachi incident found commonly reported symptoms were temporary eye, throat or skin irritation, headaches or general malaise. These health effects showed a clear sign of decreasing in number as people moved further away from the oil-spill site, she says.