Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Heightened asthma risk seen among Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup workers

“This is the first study to ever look at specific chemicals from oil spills and link them to respiratory diseases.”
Oil spill.

Story at a glance

  • There’s no doubt the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was detrimental to marine life.

  • Now, new research details the toll of the disaster on human health.

  • Workers who helped clean up the spill were 60 percent more likely to develop asthma within three years compared with nonworkers.

Results of a study conducted on more than 19,000 workers who helped clean up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill found these individuals were 60 percent more likely to develop asthma within one to three years compared with nonworkers. 

This heightened risk is due to exposure to airborne total hydrocarbons and pollutants benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, o-, m-, and p-xylenes and n-hexane (BTEX-H) from crude oil, researchers found. Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from burning or flaring oil and gas was also linked with an increased asthma risk.

The 2010 spill was the worst in the nation’s history, releasing approximately 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, while traces of the spill were still detectable 10 years later, according to recent reports.

“This is the first study to ever look at specific chemicals from oil spills and link them to respiratory diseases,” said Dale Sandler, lead researcher for the Gulf Long-Term Follow-up (GuLF) study in a statement. 

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“If you were an oil spill cleanup worker in the gulf experiencing wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms, it would be good to let your healthcare provider know you worked on the oil spill.” 

Although the GuLF study consisted of 24,937 cleanup workers and 7,671 nonworkers, investigators focused their analysis on 19,018 workers without asthma prior to the spill. 

Based on exposure, outcome, and covariate information, researchers determined how many workers developed incident asthma within three years of exposure. Any self-reported physician diagnosis or self-reported wheeze was considered an incident case of asthma.

“Because the GuLF STUDY population is socioeconomically vulnerable, with less than half reporting access to medical care, we included non-doctor confirmed asthma cases to minimize any underreporting of true asthma cases in the population that would be missed due to lack of access to health care,” Sandler explained. 

Data showed exposure to greater total hydrocarbons, individual  BTEX-H chemicals and BTEX-H chemical mixture levels increased asthma risk.

A total of 983 (5 percent) of workers developed asthma compared with 196 (3 percent) of nonworkers within the study time frame.

“Exposure levels varied depending on the person’s clean-up jobs and how long they worked,” said co-author Kaitlyn Lawrence of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Epidemiology Branch. 

These varied from administrative support to decontaminating wildlife, and individuals who operated, maintained or refueled heavy clean-up equipment reported the highest incidence of asthma.