Beachgoers Fear Oil Health Effects

Anita and Charles Kenyon, with their daughter Ashley, rerouted their vacation to Clearwater Beach after tarballs appeared along the Florida Panhandle.
TAMPA (2006-06-28) -

Anita Kenyon of Marietta, Ga., is sitting on Clearwater Beach with her husband Charles and 12-year-old daughter Ashley. The family was supposed to vacation on Fort Walton Beach, but when tarballs began washing up on the Florida Panhandle earlier this month, Kenyon rerouted their trip.

"The oil and the tarballs that have shown up, and men in these suits right on the beach while you’re in a bathing suit," said Kenyon, 45, with a laugh. "So that made us change our plans. Who wants to swim when there's a potential maybe chemical or oil coming your way?"

Kenyon's concerns are common. What happens if you swim in oily water, or accidentally swallow some? How about if you inhale the fumes, or eat oil-tainted fish?

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences met in New Orleans to sort out these questions. Dr. David Savitz helped organize the conference.

"My impression personally was how important it is that there be the kind of immediate data gathering and information dissemination that will let people decide whether to go to the beach next weekend," Savitz said.

So more research is needed. For beachgoers like Kenyon, the bottom line is this: Ingesting oil or inhaling the fumes? Not so good.

"There are a huge number of chemicals that are contained in oil," Savitz said. "Certainly, it includes chemicals that are known to be toxic."

That's especially true for children, whose bodies have a harder time eliminating the toxins. Doctors say eating contaminated fish isn't such a hot idea, either. Tests will reveal whether toxic seafood has made it to market.
As for swimming, a quick dip in oily water probably won't hurt. But wallowing in it for hours can cause redness and burning, said Dr. Philip Shenefelt, a dermatologist at the University of South Florida.

"It can cause irritation of the skin with prolonged contact to the skin," Shenefelt said. "It also can cause irritation to the eyes and other parts of the body, so it's a potentially serious issue if the person has long exposure."

After contact with oily water, Shenefelt recommended washing off with something that's become a staple of the oil spill: Dishwashing liquid. Then slather on some lotion to prevent dryness.


Pelican on a rock
Health Effects of Oil
Beachgoers voice their concerns over the health effects of the oil spill.
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