Written by Callie Casstevens, LABB volunteer
“It is completely safe. The dispersants are like Noxema; you could even put it on your face.”
This was a statement made by Coast Guard Capt. Edwin Stanton at a community meeting in Port Sulphur, La., this time last year. What a difference a year makes right? Well, not so much.
Last year, Gulf Coast residents were scared, angry and upset about the state of their coast, cultural loss and concerns over seafood consumption. Today, residents are still concerned about the safety of the seafood and the more questions residents, scientists and researchers raise, the less answers are given.
When I first began interning with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, I was completing law school and I worked on the safety issues surrounding the oil spill catastrophe. One safety issue of primary concern was the use of dispersants and the potential health effects such usage would cause humans and the eco-system at large. Community meeting after community meeting, I would ask numerous federal agencies including the EPA, NOAA, FDA and private contractors involved about the specific health risk of the dispersants. However, the mantra of each agency was “Everything is safe. Everything is OK.” I realized then that we had a problem, and we will continue having a problem, until the entire process becomes more honest and transparent.
More than one year later, I have finished law school and am back researching at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Safety remains a vital issue, one that needs to continue being researched and explored. My current focus is the safety of Gulf Coast seafood and, in particular, the need to analyze the FDA’s research and sample results to determine whether or not they accurately address the seafood safety concern.
The FDA measures primarily for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been identified as extremely dangerous to human health. One PAH of particular concern is naphthalene, this is a chemical found in oil that is a strong atmospheric pollutant. PAHs occur often in oil and are of particular concern because some compounds have been identified as carcinogenic, i.e. cancer causing. In fact, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry performed a case study specifically on the toxicity of PAHs (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/pah/index.html) and the results showed certain PAH metabolites interact with DNA and are genotoxic, meaning they may cause heritable genetic damage in humans. Further, heavy exposure to such mixtures of PAHs entails a substantial risk of lung, skin or bladder cancer.
The health risks corresponding to many chemicals found in oil support the need for continued testing and research throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-director of the University of California at San Francisco Occupational and Environmental Medicine Residency and Fellowship Program, explained that there is still a critical need for ongoing testing in the coming months or years to assure that seafood is not only safe now, but stays safe.
One example of the need for continued sampling and testing is the Braer oil spill that occurred on January 5, 1993 in Scotland. More than 85,000 tons of light crude oil spilled along the Shetland Islands, endangering numerous species of finfish and crustaceans. Scientists tested a multitude of marine life for more than five years. What the sampling results illustrated is that oil did not simply disappear nor leave the ecosystem without causing any damage.
They discovered that crustaceans, including lobsters, crabs and shrimp, had moderate risk of exposure because they have some mobility. However, if lower lying areas, such as “subtidal sediments” are significantly contaminated, species that burrow into soft sediments are at higher risk of exposure. The Braer spill sampling revealed that the burrowing Norway lobster remained contaminated for more than five years. These findings were only possible as a result of the continued efforts of the scientific community to assure the safe consumption of seafood.
The deputy commissioner for the FDA was absolutely correct when he proclaimed at a conference exploring food safety at the beginning of the year:
“History will be made when prevention is the industry norm, not just the best practice.”
One cannot prevent safety without implementing standards that are not merely suggestions, but are rules that must be followed. The results from the Braer oil spill illustrate the necessity for continued sampling. Knowledge is power and the Gulf Coast is asking for knowledge, explanation and information in order to feel empowered for their own safety. The shores of the Gulf Coast still show evidence of oil and tar balls, yet, residents are expected to believe the worst is over.
A word that has been utilized often throughout this crisis has been “acceptable risk.” This has been used to describe levels of toxins that a human may “safely” consume. Is any risk of cancer-causing toxins acceptable in our food supply? Is this something Gulf Coast residents should accept? Eating seafood with any level of oil present is not normal, nor should it become the norm.