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Medical researchers are meeting this week in New Orleans to discuss the health effects of the gulf oil spill. The workshop was pulled together by the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences. Even though oil spills are fairly common, scientists say there's surprisingly little research on how they affect human health.
NPR's Richard Knox reports.
RICHARD KNOX: At the end of a long day of reports on what's known and what's not known about the effects of oil spills on humans, John Hosey pretty much summed up the situation.
Mr. JOHN HOSEY (Clergyman, Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force): The answers that people are getting are much like the oil that's coming out of the floor of the ocean. There's a lot of it coming up, but none of it's really worth very much.
KNOX: Hosey doesn't pretend to be a scientist. He's a clergyman with a group called the Mississippi Interfaith Disaster Task Force. But none of the distinguished researchers in the audience disagree with his assessment.
The fact is, the evidence that oil spills are bad for human health is pretty thin. Since the 1960s, there have been more than 30 major oil spills, nearly all from shipwrecked tankers. But only around a quarter have been studied for toxic effects on humans.
Scientists at the workshop differ on how they read this evidence. Dr. Scott Barnhart, of the University of Washington, says cleanup workers exposed to crude oil often suffer stinging eyes, rashes, coughs and other respiratory symptoms.
Dr. SCOTT BARNHART (University of Washington): Any of these effects, I don't think we would expect to really be permanent. We would expect these to be reversible.
KNOX: Barnhart also says there's no convincing evidence that people exposed to crude oil have more serious long-term problems, either, such as cancer.
Dr. BARNHART: We should not have workers, volunteers, anybody exposed to significant quantities of crude oil. I mean, these should be managed and avoided. At the same time, you know, the risk for particular carcinogens is probably quite small.
KNOX: The concern goes beyond cleanup workers. In shoreline communities where spilled oil washes up, other people can get exposed, too.
Dr. Brenda Eskenazi, of the University of California at Berkeley, is far from persuaded that oil spills pose no threat. She studies children.
Dr. BRENDA ESKENAZI (University of California, Berkeley): Children are different. They're not little adults. They're also less efficient at detoxifying and metabolizing chemicals.
KNOX: Eskenazi says animal studies suggest the toxins in oil can cause lasting genetic damage that can be passed down from one generation to another. While there's a lot of uncertainty about the effects of oil on physical health, there's plenty of evidence about the toll it takes on mental health.
Dr. Howard Osofsky, of Louisiana State University, says it's already happening.
Dr. HOWARD OSOFSKY (Chairman, Department of Psychiatry, Louisiana State University): One of our local parish leaders the other day - in speaking to me -said Howard, this is the tip of the iceberg. We're seeing already an increase in suspiciousness, arguing, domestic violence. We're having reports from drug courts. We're already having reports of increased drinking, anxiety, anger and avoidance.
KNOX: This is entirely consistent with what happened in 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska.
Lawrence Palinkas, of the University of Southern California, studied the aftereffects of that disaster on 22 communities in Alaska. He says the costs were incalculable.
Professor LAWRENCE PALINKAS (University of Southern California): Fragmented families, failed marriages, community residents who no longer speak together, no longer collaborate on other community activities. Those are things that have to be taken into consideration when it comes to mitigating the consequences of oil spills.
KNOX: People in communities where the oil fouled the beaches had much higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. And that mental stress, Palinkas says, translated into higher rates of heart disease and other physical illnesses.
Richard Knox, NPR News, New Orleans.
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