The Gulf oil spill could lead to some serious public health problems, according to a new report released this week.
As the environmental and economic disaster continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, attention has largely focused on efforts to cap the gushing sea-bottom well.
However, the Center for American Progress, an independent policy research group, has examined the potential health risks associated with the spill.
Public health dangers
The report's co-author, Lesley Russell, says the hundreds of millions of liters of crude oil that have poured from BP's broken well into the Gulf of Mexico over the past three months pose a variety of public health dangers.
She says cleanup workers in close contact with crude oil, smoke fumes and dispersants have reported feeling ill, as have many residents whose lives have been turned upside down.
Russell says the long-term impact of toxins in the environment could produce respiratory problems, excess cancers, endocrine and fertility issues, problems with contaminated seafood and post traumatic stress syndrome.
No scientific effort was made to monitor the health effects after the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.
Russell notes that the few studies that do document the long-term impact of an oil spill - such as the disaster off the coast of Spain in 2002 - are cause for serious concern.
"They've shown long-term respiratory problems and some problems with endocrine malfunctions and also with DNA breakages of the sort that could potentially lead to cancers."
Call for health investigation
The Center for American Progress report calls for a coordinated public health investigation into the Gulf spill, to be directed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The agency would coordinate government-wide efforts to collect, monitor and standardize data and target funding for immediate and longer-term needs.
California Congresswoman Lois Capps supports that plan, which she says would not require new legislation or the creation of a new federal agency to proceed.
Capps adds that BP - the British oil giant primarily responsible for the spill and its cleanup - should not be entrusted with monitoring the health effects of the oil disaster.
"They are not a public health entity," says Capps. "And they lack the experience, the expertise and even the incentive to faithfully protect public health and safety."
Holding BP accountable
But BP is still very much in the picture, says another of the report's co-authors, Ellen Marie Whelan, associate director of Health Policy at the Center for American Progress.
Whelan says standardized data monitored over time will be crucial to any future legal actions taken to hold BP accountable for its actions.
"We have a causative agent here. We know that it has been BP that has done this, and we want to try to make sure that the costs of this response are covered by BP," she says. "We applaud the fact that there is a $20 billion escrow account put into place, but we want to make sure that is seen as a down payment and opened-ended, depending on what the needs are as we follow this through."
Another key element of the proposed public health response is that once it's established, it can be deployed for any disaster, at any time, says Center for American Progress visiting scholar Lesley Russell.
"We shouldn't be doing this on an ad hoc basis. We should have something ready to go from the very beginning." Russell adds that the center's proposed plan underscores the need for immediate action, and she is hopeful federal health officials concerned about the Gulf oil spill will be guided by its recommendations.