Environmental Health Expert Calls for Improved Scientific Study of Gulf Coast Oil Disaster

By Lisa Cisneros on August 20, 2010

UCSF environmental health expert Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, is calling for improved scientific study of the human health hazards caused by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico after she and a colleague spent a couple of weeks gathering information in the region.

During her visit to the Gulf coast, Solomon met with fishermen, local residents, cleanup workers, community leaders, and government and BP officials to gather as much data as possible about the environmental catastrophe and its effects on human health.

Gina Solomon

Solomon is co-director of the UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency Program, associate clinical professor of medicine and associate director of the UCSF Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. She also is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental watchdog and action group.

Solomon and Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCSF and a senior scientist with the NRDC, co-authored a commentary about the “Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill,” which is posted online and will be published in the September 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The article aims to call attention to the health risks and to help protect coastal community members from exposure to chemicals from the oil spill or its dispersants. Read the UCSF news release.

Focusing on Gulf Coast Seafood Safety

Solomon continues to analyze and monitor current Gulf data and is now focusing on the safety of the seafood as more areas of the Gulf are re-opened for fishing and shrimping.

“When we reviewed the protocol for determining Gulf seafood safety, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), we found some flaws that need to be fixed to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected,” Solomon wrote on her blog.

A day after fall shrimping season began in the Gulf of Mexico, Solomon and two other colleagues at the NRDC joined 23 other concerned groups to send letters to the FDA and NOAA asking the government agencies to ensure a “uniform procedure for evaluating potential health threats of contaminated seafood” and public disclosure of all seafood monitoring data and sampling protocols.

The letter to the FDA also called on the FDA to “revise its seafood risk assessment” and “work with states and NOAA to make sure that decisions to reopen fisheries “are based on publicly available and robust data and ensure the adequacy of warnings to vulnerable populations.”

Solomon also studied data from past oil spills, including the Exxon Valdez oil disaster off Alaska in 1989, which demonstrated “that the use of national consumption rates dramatically underestimated exposure to contaminants in seafood for local populations.”

She hoped to learn more from history by reviewing the literature on the health effects of prior oil spills, but, surprisingly, “most oil spills haven’t been studied, and only one previous spill has been studied for long-term health effects,” she said.

The issue about seafood safety and the long-term health effects of the BP oil disaster is generating headlines across the country just days after President Barrack Obama and the first family vacationed in the Gulf coast. National newspaper and TV broadcast coverage of Soloman and Janssen’s JAMA article, included Reuters, UPI, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal’s health blog, Los Angeles Times—Greenspace blog, Scientific American, KGO-TV, KTVU-TV, to name just a few.

UCSF Today caught up with Solomon on Wednesday to shed additional light on following questions.

Q: When and where did you go to the Gulf coast and what were the primary objectives of your trip? Do you plan to go again?

UCSF environmental health specialist Gina Solomon monitors off-shore air-quality along the Gulf coast.

A:  My co-author Sarah Janssen and I did work in the Gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina, including publishing environmental assessments in New Orleans around air quality, mold, drinking water safety, and soil/sediment contamination from the flooding. So we have close connections with local community groups and some of the local researchers.

I was back in the Gulf coast for a couple of weeks in May, when the well was still spewing, and oil was just starting to hit the beaches along the coast. I spent time in the New Orleans area, and then further south in Venice, Louisiana, which is a shrimping town that was ‘ground zero’ for the oil impacts. I also met with oyster fishermen in Grand Isle, Louisiana. During that time, I met with fishermen, local residents, cleanup workers, community leaders, and officials from EPA, BP, NOAA, and the Coast Guard to gather information about their activities and to press for access to their data. The main purpose of the trip was information-gathering, and I certainly expect to be back down there, probably in the coming weeks.

Since my return to the Bay Area, my team has been focusing on rapid analysis of data emerging from government agencies and from BP. We have been doing weekly updates of air quality along the Gulf coast on my blog, and analysis of the BP data on worker exposures. Now we’re focusing on seafood safety data. The groups along the Gulf coast are hungry for information, and the government and BP data have not been posted in a way that can be interpreted by the general public.

Q: It’s good news that the air quality is improving because the oil is evaporating and dispersing. When do you expect the air quality to fully recover?

A: The data indicate that the air quality is probably back to baseline at this time. The big question is whether there will be any lasting respiratory health effects in the Gulf coast population. Based on the data I have seen, I am optimistic that local residents will not suffer from long-term respiratory effects, but I have some concern about the offshore workers. Only time will tell.

Q: Do we know the long-term problems posed by oil and tar balls and did you encounter any on the beaches? Were the beaches crowded or empty?

A: I encountered tar balls on a beach at South Pass, near Venice, Louisiana. That area isn’t really a swimming beach, and the only other people there that day were cleanup workers. Other people who I spoke with told me about people swimming at beaches in Mississippi, where there were tar balls on the beach and oil in the water. People there were using detergents to try to clean the oil off their skin after swimming.  Oil can cause contact dermatitis, folliculitis, and even photosensitivity reactions. Some of these rashes are nasty and fairly persistent. In addition, some of the chemicals in oil can be absorbed through the skin and are carcinogenic, so it definitely is unwise to get it on your skin.

Q: Did you learn anything about the site where crews are dumping all the debris from oil cleanup efforts?

A: I didn’t look into that specifically, but it’s certainly a concern. There is a lot of contaminated waste from the cleanup effort, and it needs to go somewhere where it won’t harm people or the environment. This was a huge problem after Hurricane Katrina, where there was also a huge amount of contaminated garbage from the destruction of the hurricane. It’s easy to make short-sighted decisions in emergencies like these, and open ‘temporary’ landfills that aren’t sufficiently contained.

Q: Your JAMA report cites health information collected from previous oil spills in Alaska, Spain, Korea and Wales, how do the size of these incidents compare to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

A: Nothing compares to the BP oil spill, except perhaps the unreported ecological disaster off the coast of Nigeria where oil spills almost seem to be routine. Unfortunately, no health information is being collected in Nigeria to my knowledge.

The prior oil spills that have been studied were mostly from oil tanker accidents. Those were quite small spills compared to the BP oil disaster—even the Exxon Valdez spill pales in comparison.

We were hoping to learn something from history by reviewing the literature on the health effects of prior oil spills, but it turns out that most oil spills haven’t been studied, and only one previous spill has been studied for long-term health effects.

The one spill that has been studied was the 2002 wreck of the tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain. Workers involved in that cleanup continued to suffer from health symptoms—especially respiratory symptoms—for years afterward, and studies in the same cohort have reported DNA damage and alterations in immunological parameters.

Q: What are important lessons learned about the health risks of oil on shrimp and other seafood from the Exxon Valdez oil disaster?

A: The main components of oil that can contaminate seafood include the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. The PAHs tend to accumulate most significantly in invertebrates such as oysters, shrimp and crabs. After previous oil spills, elevated levels of PAHs were still found in oysters 6 to 7 years later.

The heavy metals behave a bit differently. They occur in only trace amounts in the oil itself, but over months and years these metals can bioaccumulate in fish. So top-predator fish in the Gulf, such as tuna, mackarel, and swordfish, may develop higher levels of mercury and other metals in the future as a result of the oil spill.

Q: One of the several flawed testing methods you point out is that the FDA uses the average weight of a male (176 pounds) to determine how much contamination is OK for one person. Is it typically the case that the needs of vulnerable populations, like children and pregnant women, are not considered in assessing environmental hazards such as this one?

A: When I first started working in the field of environmental health 15 years ago, it was typical for scientists and government agencies to use male adult bodyweight, and ‘typical consumption’ estimates when they assessed health risk. Over time, such assumptions have changed. For example, the EPA now identifies the populations at risk, and often uses assumptions that are designed specifically to protect children, pregnant women, subsistence fishing communities, or other high-risk groups.

Unfortunately, in this case, the FDA went back to its old bad habits. Not only did they use an estimated average bodyweight of 176 pounds (80 kg), but they assumed people only eat shrimp once a week, and that a serving consists of only four large shrimp. That’s not appropriate for many Gulf coast residents. I’m hoping we can still get them to correct their faulty assumptions before too many decisions are based on their numbers.

Q: How present is the federal government agencies in monitoring the situation and who should take ultimate responsibility to ensure that the states are following proper procedures to protect public health?

A: It’s a tricky situation in the Gulf coast, since lots of different government agencies are working there, and there are lots of funny jurisdictional boundaries. For example, the states have the authority to reopen waters for fishing, as long as those waters are within a certain number of miles from the coastline. Mississippi and Louisiana have opened some pretty iffy areas, and we’re getting reports from fishermen of visible oil in open state fishing grounds, and shrimp from these areas that smell of oil.

It’s not really possible for the FDA to over-rule the states, but they need to pressure the states harder to protect public health. The states are making some decisions based more on economic considerations than health and science, and it’s ultimately the federal government that needs to step in. That’s why we sent letters to FDA and NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), asking them to improve their scientific assessments, make all their data publicly available, and step in to assure that the states are protecting health.

Related Links:


Health impact of Gulf Coast oil spill hazardous but improving
UCSF News Release, August 16, 2010

Article on the Journal of the American Medical Association website


Gina Solomon’s blog