An “epidemiologist” is a scientist who studies diseases among groups of people.
So the following quote from Bloomberg caught my eye:
Shira Kramer, an epidemiologist who has conducted research for the petroleum industry on the health consequences of exposure to petroleum, said she is concerned that the risks are being downplayed.
“It’s completely scientifically dishonest to pooh-pooh the potential here when you are talking about some of the most toxic chemicals that we know,” said Kramer….
“When you talk about community exposure, you are talking about exposures in unpredictable ways and to subpopulations that may be more highly susceptible than others, such as those of reproductive age, people who are immuno-compromised, children or fetuses.
‘With the World Trade Center, there have been unpredictable adverse health effects to the populations that were exposed and not just the workers,” she said. “In this case, we have a soup of chemicals from the crude, chemicals from the dispersants and pollutants that were already in the water. Who can say how they will interact?”
Bloomberg also notes that the Centers for Disease Control has issued health warnings about the oil:
“Although the oil may contain some chemicals that could cause harm to an unborn baby under some conditions, the CDC has reviewed sampling data from the EPA and feels that the levels of these chemicals are well below the level that could generally cause harm to pregnant women or their unborn babies,” the CDC said on its website.
While they suggest there is no threat, the CDC simultaneously advised “everyone, including pregnant women” to avoid spill-affected areas.
While we must keep the risk in perspective – and while this does not mean that Gulf coast residents will suffer mass illness due to the oil spill – we should not underestimate the risks either. As Bloomberg notes:
“Oil is a complex mixture containing substances like benzene, heavy metals, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons — all known to cause human health problems such as cancer, birth defects or miscarriages,” said Kenneth Olden, founding dean of New York’s CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, who is monitoring a panel on possible delayed effects. “The potential here is huge and we have to be diligent about protecting the public health and these workers.”
For the public at large, the threat is less clear because of the uncertainty about the degree of exposure, Lioy said in a telephone interview.
“I don’t think the levels are high enough for concern,” he said. “But this is an ongoing event. Every day is Day One. Every place can be Ground Zero.”
Because hurricanes could spread the oil inland, it may indeed be true that almost every place on the Gulf Coast can be Ground Zero.