Gulf oil spill: Fouling air as well as water?

The EPA says some communities in Louisiana face a 'moderate health risk' due to hydrocarbon fumes from the Gulf oil spill. Researchers will report air quality findings this week.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Smoke rises from a controlled burn of contained oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil well leak on the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana Friday, July 16. Researchers suspect adverse health effects from air pollution tied to the Gulf oil spill.

Questions about air pollution related to the BP oil spill may get some clearer answers this coming week, as university researchers and a Louisiana environmental group release initial findings of their independent analysis of the Gulf region’s air quality.

Last week, the EPA said that residents of two hard hit coastal communities in Louisiana – Grand Isle and Venice – face a “moderate health risk” due to hydrocarbon fumes. In Terrebonne Parish, residents of the town of Cocodrie and the surrounding area are also reporting strong odors of petroleum.

For months since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well blew, residents along the Gulf Coast, including many in New Orleans and other metro regions miles away from the shore, have said they smell fumes from the oil spill. Some have reported symptoms ranging from red eyes and runny noses to sinus infections and flu-like symptoms.

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Researchers for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade – an environmental non-profit – soon will release air quality findings based on their independent research and analysis of data provided by the EPA and state monitoring agencies. At the University of New Orleans, Dr. Bhaskar Kura is completing a separate analysis which he will present the week of July 26.

Anna Hrybyk of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said the environmental group is analyzing data on benzene levels in Louisiana 20 times above normal. In another finding, air samples taken in mid-May outside the organization’s office near downtown New Orleans showed elevated levels of hexane and heptane, neurotoxins found in petroleum. [Editor's note: The previous two paragraphs have been changed to accurately describe the work of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.]

“The levels were similar to what you would be exposed to pumping gas at a gas station – not high enough for a public health agency to issue a warning, but it does effect quality of life,” said Ms. Hrybyk.

Dr. Kura, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said a full understanding of how the spill is affecting the region’s air quality will take years.

“I know the public is very concerned, but scientists want to see all the available data and interpret their interrelationships before they start giving full answers,” said Kura, whose data includes air samples he took offshore in June, combined with data from the EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. “This is very difficult to look into and will require a lot of funding and manpower for further sampling.”

In a statement last week, the EPA said odor-causing pollutants associated with oil have been detected over wide areas of the Gulf, but that the chemicals have not been linked directly to the BP spill. The agency called the pollution levels detected in Venice and Grand Isle “a health risk to vulnerable people” and “anyone unusually sensitive to low-quality air.”

New Orleans resident Amzie Adams said he first noticed an unusual gas smell in the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods a week after the oil spill disaster started. An artist who’s been diagnosed with liver disease, Adams gave up using oil paints decades ago because the fumes affected his health.

“I’m one of those people who’re particularly sensitive to chemical fumes, and for the past two months I’ve really noticed something in the air, and I think it has to come from the spill,” says Mr. Adams. He reported his experience to a regional Poison Control office and has since received dozens of follow-up calls monitoring his health.

“Sometimes it’s smelled like methane gas, sometimes like a gas station," Adams said. "My eyes have been burning for two months now.”

Kura, of the University of New Orleans, is heading an interdisciplinary research effort examining air quality issues related to the spill, which will include scientists from several universities. Their research will rely in part on inverse modeling, a reverse methodology that will use air quality samples to estimate the actual size of the spill, he said.

“You have a vast area with unknown millions of gallons of crude, so it’s not as easy as measuring emissions from a smokestack,” said Kura. “The measurements you get at one point on a given day are dependent on the wind direction, so you have to measure over time to get a good idea of what the exposures are.”

The multi-pronged study will also look at water quality issues, including whether soot and other pollutants created by burn-offs of oil in the Gulf have created acid rains and so-called “black rains,” which may affect groundwater and soil compositions.

“Air pollution is by far the most important factor in terms of human health, but the particulates created by burning oil on the surface are particularly toxic, and when they go up in the clouds they will come down with the rain,” Kura said.

Anna Hrybyk, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said her organization is distributing air sample self-collection kits to residents of the Gulf region. The samples are sent to an independent lab for testing. The non-profit’s website includes an interactive map, which is relying on “crowd sourcing” to collect data about the spill.

Using e-mail, text messages, or by visiting the group's website, users can make their own reports regarding odors, ill health, oil on beaches, oiled wildlife, and a host of other impacts from the spill. The site has recorded 1,300 oil impacts since May 1, including 200 reports of vapor odors, she said. [Editor's note: The original paragraph has been changed to give the correct number of reports of vapor odors.]

“Regarding people as far away from the spill as New Orleans saying they can smell the hydrocarbons, I believe that is quite possible,” said Kura. “Some people are very sensitive to exposure, and it all depends on whether a plume of these vapors is over their area. On one day it could be yes and on another no.”

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