Environmental Law

BP Oil Spill and Human Health Hazards

  • The impact of the BP oil spill on human health is uncertain
  • Research on oil spill and human health will be done
  • Reports of illness and injury related to the BP spill are rising


The reach of effects from the BP Deep Horizon oil spill seem as endless as the oil keeps flowing from the ocean floor. The oil spill also affects human health, but the range and severity of the impact is largely unknown. Time and research are needed before there will be any solid answers.

Health Authorities Take Reports

Several government agencies are involved with oil spill effects on human health. They include:

The roles of these agencies vary from regulating human exposure to oil spill contaminants, managing responses and research.

As of June 2010, reports of sick or injured persons connected to the oil spill are increasing. DHH received reports of at least 70 oil spill-related illnesses.1 About 50 oil rig workers reported illnesses, with about eight people hospitalized. Twenty-one cases involved the general public, and most had existing respiratory ailments. The American Association of Poison Control Centers has received several hundreds complaints related to the oil spill.2

Possible Effects from Exposure

According to HHS, surprisingly little is known about oil spill effects on human health. There have been about 400 oil spills over the last 50 years, with only a handful studied for human health impact. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, along with the EPA are tracking the health of oil spill response workers. About half the response work force signed up for these health studies.

Suspect Symptoms

Those reporting health-related complaints share common symptoms including:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Throat and eye irritation
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Heat exhaustion symptoms

Researchers from the Tulane Center for Applied Environmental Health report most symptoms are readily reversible.3 Other concerns include lung, liver and kidney damage from exposure to volatile organic compounds. Staying out of the water if oil is present is recommended. Tar balls on the beach present little risk - it's similar to asphalt.

Human health impacts could be subtle as well. Food chain contamination is possible. Psychiatric and behavioral health effects are uncertain. Those who work in the gulf region and those who live in the area face stress from the crisis and the changes to their ways of life. Researchers don't know how the oil spill could cause illness, or how those with underlying or chronic conditions could be affected.

Prevention Measures

BP and government agencies recommend precautions for those in contact with oil spill contaminants and clean-up materials. OSHA has an oil spill response page, and details the hazards, training and protection for clean-up workers. BP has a medical screening clinic in Louisiana to confirm response workers meet health requirements and provide training. Precautions include wearing protective gloves, clothing, goggles and filter masks for those exposed to oil dispersants.

Possible Lawsuits

Looking back, 6700 clean-up workers from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 claimed respiratory problems. The company claimed illnesses were viral; one worker settled a case with Exxon.

When large numbers of people claim injury and damages from the same causes, class action lawsuits or mass tort cases result. A class action involves representative(s) for a larger group of claimants pursuing the lawsuit for the benefit of the group. There are prerequisites for a class action, and it can't be used if claims and proof aren't the same.

A mass tort action differs as individual claims are maintained. The individual claims, having similar issues, are argued together in one trial, providing efficiency for all parties.

The BP oil spill is an ongoing crisis, with legal action to been seen for a long time to come.


1Talea Miller, Health Concerns Heighten as Oil Spill Spreads, PBS Newshour Updates, June 11, 2010, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/health/jan-june10/healthoil_06-11.html, accessed June 24, 2010.
2Jessica Mulvihill, Concerns Grow Over Long-Term Health Effects of Oil Spill, Fox News, June 24, 2010, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,595243,00.html, accessed June 24, 2010.
3Talea Miller, Health Concerns Heighten as Oil Spill Spreads, PBS Newshour Updates, June 11, 2010, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/health/jan-june10/healthoil_06-11.html, accessed June 23, 2010.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Where do I start if I think my health problem is related to the oil spill?
  • How do I have my claim included in a class action or mass tort lawsuit? Or is an individual lawsuit right for my case?
  • What is the time limit for determining I have an oil spill claim and for seeking relief in court?

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