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BP Oil Spill Causing Serious Air Quality Concerns, Blamed for Sickness In Humans

Toxic benzene gas and other carcinogenic volatile organic compounds can cause flu symptoms that don't go away, respiratory damage, and skin problems.

Vicki Nikolaidis, Associated Content, Jun 20, 2010

Poor air quality is a serious problem caused by the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, along with the threat to water, beaches, and marshes of the Gulf of Mexico. Many people, both when fishing and when working on clean-up, have complained of bad smells, dizziness, nausea, and a burning sensation in the nose and lungs.

An odor like the one smelled when pumping gas to fill your car's gas tank is caused by volatile organic compounds. Volatile compounds are those that evaporate from the oil spill and clean up dispersant. In other words, they vaporize into the air. "VOCs" is often used as shorthand for "volatile organic compounds." VOCs which can be inhaled from the crude oil vapors include benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene. These are highly toxic chemical compounds, and some are carcinogens, so long exposure must be avoided, unless one is properly equipped with an appropriate breathing apparatus.

SVOCs, semi-volatile organic compounds, may also be present. The smell of SVOCs is most often described as an oily or tar-like smell. A portion of the compound evaporates into the air, but not all. That which is left is considered part of the "weathered oil" from the oil spill, as not all of the original compound remains.

Usually, when we hear the word "organic," we think of plants and animals. Until 1828, the term "organic chemistry "was used because of an assumption that some component from a living cell must be available to make organic compounds. In 1828, Dr. Wohler recognized that even an inorganic salt could make an organic compound upon heating. But we still use the term "organic chemistry" out of tradition, and also because of its general meaning "the study of carbon compounds." Most of the chemicals that are part of our everyday lives are carbon compounds.

A June 7 CBS news report from medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton stated that, in Louisiana, 75 workers have been treated for the symptoms of breathing unhealthy pollutants from the oil spill and from compounds such as dispersant.

Ms Marian Wang, the lead blogger at The ProPublica Blog, wrote on June 10 that inadequate safety equipment has been provided for workers. She reports that, in Louisiana, 50 workers and 21 public citizens have complained of discomfort which may be from exposure to the oil spill. Her blog post also reports that "Eight workers were hospitalized briefly, but most had symptoms that cleared up quickly."

"In Alabama, which is also keeping track of oil-related health complaints, 15 cases of illness have been reported," said Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer. "Ten of them had respiratory problems and five had skin irritation."

CNN's Ms Elizabeth Cohen reported with a video from the BP oil spill site about those who have become sick, their reaction, and that of their relatives.

In order to keep people informed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Quality Department has set up an extensive monitoring system in order to track the air quality along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Stationary stations for real-time air monitoring are being used, as well as a laboratory on wheels, the TAGA (Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzers) bus. "The TAGA monitors have been conducting two types of monitoring: air toxics found in crude oil that may evaporate from the spill into the air, and chemicals from dispersant that have the highest potential to get into the air in any significant amounts."

Not only is the EPA measuring organic compounds but also ozone and particulate levels which, if too high, might cause health problems for people in the area. Because some of the oil spill has been "burned off," the air pollution from the burning of the oil on top of the sea causes smoke and ash (particulate matter), and may also change normal ozone levels.

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