How will the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico impact human health? The short answer: we don’t know.

At the direction of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Institute of Medicine recently held a workshop on the health effects of the Gulf oil spill. This week, the group released a summary of the discussion, which emphasized the complexity of potential health impacts and the need for more data and research.

oil-spill-fish-featured.jpg“The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is unprecedented,” according to the Institute. “From the origin of the leak, to the amount of oil released into the environment, to the spill’s duration and ongoing nature, the Gulf oil spill poses unique challenges to human health.”

With a week’s notice, 37 experts and public health officials and over 300 participants gathered in New Orleans for the workshop in June to begin the discussion on how to measure and mitigate the public health impact of the spill.

According to the report, the expert discussion touched on a wide variety of topics, from water quality to ecosystems to at-risk populations, but there was one unifying theme: scientists cannot predict the full range of health consequences.
“The potential physical, psychological, and socioeconomic impacts of the Gulf oil spill and clean-up response on the short- and long-term health of individuals in the affected region–including land- and sea-based clean-up workers, fishermen, and other commercial workers, residents, visitors, and communities as a whole–are unknown,” reads the report.

William Farland, a researcher at Colorado State Unviversity in environmental and radiological science, emphasized that food contamination risks were not necessarily limited to seafood. “The potential for toxins to enter the food supply is a particularly important issue to consider in the Gulf,” reads the summary of Farland’s presentation.

Farland said he believes widespread monitoring will be necessary.

“Understanding the source-to-receptor pathways in the Gulf, including toxicity in the food supply, will require gathering several types of data through various types of monitoring activities, including food, air, and water sampling,” said the report.

“Food sampling should involve not just seafood testing but also creel surveys and game monitoring, given that there are local populations of subsistence hunters and fishermen,” the report continues. “With respect to water sampling, while it is unlikely that contamination will move far enough inland to affect underground water systems, it is important to ensure that disposal plans for various items (e.g., used personal protective equipment) address the issue of potential contamination of local wells.”

Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a professor at University of Pittsburgh’s school of public health, discussed naturally existing bacteria being able to ingest and break down some of the oil chemical compounds. “These oil-metabolizing bacteria require oxygen,” reads the summary. “An increase in their numbers caused by a large food source could result in an even larger dead zone, which has potentially indirect consequences for human health.”

“As elaborated throughout the workshop, there are many unanswered questions about at-risk populations, potential hazards (including exposures) to human health, the potential effects of these hazards, and how best to minimize hazards,” says the report.

According to the Institute of Medicine, some of the uncertainty “stems from the enormity and unprecedented magnitude and scope of the disaster.”

As the report notes, the workshop was just the beginning of a long, perhaps decades-long, discussion that public health officials, scientists, and community leaders will need to have to fully grapple with the health effects of the spill.