June 22, 2010 -- Thousands of hired workers, cleanup volunteers, and Gulf Coast residents are sure to come in direct contact with toxic chemicals as crude oil continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico from a damaged BP oil well. But the psychological and emotional scars left by the oil are bound to be more severe than any of the physical ones, experts warn.
Psychiatrists who study the impact of large-scale environmental and natural disasters cautioned that the stress of lost wages, unemployment, and displacement is already having a noticeable affect on Gulf residents. They said signs of that stress are already showing up among adults and children in the area.
The comments were made Tuesday in New Orleans at an Institute of Medicine forum on the health effects of the oil spill.
"It's Katrina, it's the recession, it's the oil spill, and it's the possibility of another big hurricane," says Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cohen in recent days has met with dozens of families in Louisiana and Mississippi.
He warns that children along the Gulf now face "toxic stress" as their parents are thrown out of work or contemplate having to move in the wake of the spill. That can lead to poor school performance, behavior problems, and depression, he says.
Those stresses have already lead to increased reports of domestic violence, increased alcohol, and drug use, and other signs of stress in communities impacted by the spill, according to Howard Osofsky, chair of the department of psychiatry at Louisiana State University.
"We're already getting calls from schools" concerning behavior problems among students, he says.
"People are reporting not only that people are drinking more … but some who've never drunk before are beginning to drink," Osofsky says. "We're going to see depression, we're going to see anxiety. We are already seeing posttraumatic stress."
Crude oil is made up of thousands of compounds, most of which have never been studied for their effects on humans. Still, some of the potential health effects are well known.
Irritation is likely whenever crude oil comes into contact with the skin or mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth. Shortness of breath, cough, dizziness, nausea, or other symptoms can ensue if the volatile organic compounds contained in crude oil are inhaled.
The same is true for many of the chemical dispersants and cleanup chemicals in use in the Gulf right now, says Scott Barnhart, MD, a professor of medicine and of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Cleanup volunteers are generally at more risk than hired workers. Volunteers usually have less training and less protective gear, including suits and respirators, Barnhart says. Also at risk may be the thousands of National Guard troops in the Gulf helping clean up oily beaches and marshes. "They're not trained for non-combat situations," he says.
Organic compounds in crude oil are toxic, though exposures strong enough to cause long-lasting health effects like kidney failure, liver problems, or cancer are relatively unlikely, experts say.
As far as tourists, beachgoers, and more distant residents, the health picture is far less clear. Oil disperses and changes chemically as it travels away from the site of the spill, says Paul J. Lioy, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine at Rutgers University. It also degrades as time passes and it contacts seawater and air.
"If you're on the ship that's doing some of the cleanup, your exposure is going to be much higher than if you're on the beach near a bunch of tar balls," he says.