After Gulf swimmers report illness, questions about opening a beach
Hundreds of beachgoers told health officials they felt unwell after swimming last week at oil spill-affected Pensacola Beach, Fla. Scientists cite many unknowns about the safety of swimming and working around the spill.
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"If you see oil in the water, don't swim in it, and hopefully people will have enough sense not to do that," says Lee. As to reports of people feeling sick, he says, "People have different reactions. You and I may go in the water, swim around, look for shells and come out of the water and your eyes may be burning and mine may be fine. It affects different people different ways."Skip to next paragraph
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Another problem for local officials weighing the bathing risks: Scientists don't know the health effects of dissolved petroleum in the water. "Someone needs to invent that test," says Lee.
From the Pensacola Beach Pier, residents reported seeing families with kids swimming in water near a sheen and a concentration of emulsified oil bobbing on the waves.
The situation reminds some residents of the 1975 movie "Jaws," in which the mayor and beach businesspeople don't want to close the beach because it would ruin the Fourth of July weekend, despite reports of a man-eating shark in the area.
The health effects of the oil and chemical dispersants used in the cleanup have become a major issue in the Gulf oil spill. Many cleanup workers are bused in from low-income urban areas, including from Anniston, Ala. A BP contractor told a Monitor reporter at a dock in Bon Seceur, Ala., on June 25, "Don't ask the workers any questions."
The Louisiana Health Department says 108 workers have become ill from working the oil spill. Some health effects have been attributed to working in heavy hazmat suits in the Gulf summer heat.
In Pensacola, health officials have swapped advisory signs that urged against swimming for 35 "oil impact" signs along the beach that tells residents to be on the lookout for oil, and to swim at their own risk. The EPA is setting up decontamination stations along the beach to help beachgoers clean oil off their bodies.
The diverse nature of the spill's effect on beaches has complicated the manner in which officials warn residents – especially as the economic implications are becoming clear. Pensacola Beach is experiencing a hotel cancellation rate of 75 percent as the height of the summer season approaches.
"We have a situation that changes from one hour to the next, from one tide to the next, from wave to wave, from one wind direction to another," Escambia County Health Department Director John Lanza tells the Pensacola News-Journal.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist told the "CBS Morning Show" this week that he went for a swim on Pensacola Beach after BP crews cleaned it up. He said continual testing done by the county has shown that the waters are clean. "There isn't a toxic nature," Governor Crist said. "It's much more of a nuisance than anything at this point. But it is safe."
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