Microbial and organismal toxins and chemicals, both commonly referred to as oil spills and toxic wastes, are found to be widespread in many areas of the world, and yet are understudied, underreported, and often overlooked.
In fact, oil spills are one of the top 10 health problems most often ignored and under-reported in the U.S., according to a recent study by the U-M Department of Environmental Health Sciences.
The researchers interviewed more than 200 residents of 10 U.M. communities and found that the prevalence of toxic exposures and health effects is higher in rural and coastal communities than in urban areas.
The findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
“The impact of oil spills is one of our top health issues in the United States and we have yet to address it in a comprehensive way,” said lead author J. Scott McInerney, PhD, associate professor of environmental science at the University of Michigan.
“Our study shows that oil spills can be a major public health problem, and that these impacts are not limited to just oil.
We know that petroleum-related health problems are higher in cities, but we don’t know how much higher.”
The research team conducted a survey of more than 100 residents of ten U.L.A. communities, looking at health impacts, exposure, and environmental contamination of surface water and surface air.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: those who had been exposed to oil spills in their community in the past year and to one group that did not.
In addition, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire on their health.
Results showed that residents of oil-exposed communities were significantly more likely to report being sick, to have symptoms of a respiratory illness, and to have a low level of education.
Residents of oil and non-oil-expressed communities were similar in their symptoms and educational attainment.
“Oil spills have been associated with significant environmental contamination, with people experiencing respiratory and/or gastrointestinal symptoms, and even a higher rate of asthma,” said McInerrney, who is now a research assistant in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“The fact that these effects are so well-documented and so widely reported in our community is really remarkable, because we are so accustomed to these things happening to us in the form of oil spill or toxic spill.
It’s very shocking to me that there are so few environmental studies that look at the impact of these kinds of exposures on health and how that impacts the health of people who live nearby.”
The researchers found that among the oil-exposure groups, residents who had experienced a spill had a significantly higher risk of developing asthma, a significantly lower likelihood of having an asthma exacerbation, and a lower likelihood for having a respiratory disorder than those who did not experience a spill.
Those living in oil-free communities were also more likely than those living in non-Oil-Exposure groups to report asthma, as well as having a lower level of educational attainment and having lower lung function.
“When we see that the impact is so clear, it’s really hard to put any kind of blanket statement about why these things are happening in our communities, but I think it is very clear,” McInrtyne said.
“We have a lot of people in our country who are exposed to environmental toxins and toxic chemicals.
We don’t have a whole lot of good information about the health impacts of these exposures.
In the future, it would be important to look at how these exposures might have a direct impact on health, and the effect on public health is an important one.”
The study is one step toward understanding how oil spills occur and how they impact health, McIneralney said.
The study is part of a larger effort by the Department to address oil spills around the world.
“This work builds on what has been shown in other studies about the effects of oil on health in people living in these communities,” McIngeralney added.
“It also is an opportunity to look for ways to improve health outcomes for people who are living in the communities affected by these spills.”
The University of California, Los Angeles is the only U., L.A., school of dentistry with an accredited master’s program in environmental sciences.