Crude oil contains a brew of substances dangerous to human health, including chemicals such as benzene that are known to cause cancer in humans, and others that are toxic to the brain and central nervous system, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“There is overwhelming evidence that many of the compounds found in crude oil are dangerous,” said James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.
A lot of the hazard will depend on the degree of exposure — placing cleanup workers, not surprisingly, at the highest risk. Brief contact with crude oil is not considered harmful, but sustained exposure or high enough doses of the chemicals can sicken people rapidly, said Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant medical director for the California Poison Control System.
“If you breathe them or ingest them or absorb them through skin they can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, even changes in mental status,” Rangan said. “The severity depends on how much you are exposed to. The longer you out there and being exposed, the higher the risk.”
If you are considering getting involved with any clean up activities associated with the Gulf oil spill, please read our Oil Spill Volunteer Toolkit first.