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Gulf Oil Syndrome: America's Next Health Crisis?

More than 50 days after oil began spewing into the crystal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I want to take a step back from all the finger pointing and political speculation, and talk about the innocent lives at stake because of the health hazard this disaster has created: Gulf Oil Syndrome.

With reports of oil spill workers falling ill, and in some cases, even being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms including nausea, headache, dizziness and even chest pains — presumably due to exposure to toxic chemicals being emitted from the 33-million gallon slick, it’s only a matter of time before people start coming down with Gulf Oil Syndrome.

Remember 9/11? Of course you do, it’s a day in American history that none of us will ever forget. After those horrific acts of terrorism claimed the lives of thousands, we watched as first responders worked round the clock to try to pick up the pieces. And as the days rolled on, and their search and rescue missions turned to search and recover, we praised their dedication in their efforts to bring closure to grieving families.

In the months that followed, conversations started to emerge about the potential health hazards the rescue personnel may be exposed to during the massive cleanup. Immediately after the attacks, of course, no one focused on any of these concerns because there were more urgent needs.

In the years since the attacks, complaints of significant health issues and even death in Ground Zero responders and survivors have been heard and lawsuits have been filed. Finally, in July 2009, New York legislators introduced the James Zadroga 9/11 Health Compensation Act, and we seem to be making progress as health coverage and compensation for victims and their families remain a priority for legislators championing these programs.

But why did it take so long? What have we learned from the mistakes and injustices that these people suffered through to change the course of how we look after the health of Americans who respond in times of disaster?

On day 15 of the oil spill, I wrote a blog about the health implications of a spill of this magnitude, titled “Will the Oil Spill Be Dangerous to Your Health?” I pointed out the potential health hazards of the hydrocarbons and alkenes in the oil, both of which are carcinogens.

I described the damaging effects that heavy metals can have on the immune system of pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems or underlying respiratory diseases. Some of our viewers responded by calling me an alarmist, accused me of fear mongering and told me how stupid I am not to realize that dilution is the solution, and that these toxins only posed a threat through repeated exposure.

Today, reports have begun to surface that county health departments in Florida’s western Panhandle have started posting warnings off a six-mile stretch of beach, advising people not to swim or fish in the oil-polluted waters. Officials are warning beachgoers — pregnant women and children in particular — to avoid skin contact with oily waters and dead sea animals; obvious casualties of the massive spill.

"Young children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and individuals with underlying respiratory conditions should avoid the area," the advisory states.

Theoretically, people suffering from this Gulf Oil Syndrome may not see the same effects as the workers who have been entrenched in the toxins since day one. But my prediction is that citizens living in the areas surrounding the spill site, will start to report symptoms like chronic fatigue, weakened immune systems, chronic respiratory illnesses, and skin irritation.

We don’t know the long-term health effects that this catastrophe will have on the clean-up workers and communities exposed but Gulf Oil Syndrome will surely linger for decades.

I can only hope that the federal government has learned from their mistakes with the handling of the health crises following 9/11, and will start setting aside some money to take care of the next wave of victims facing a future of health problems.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's Senior Managing Editor for Health News. Prior to this position, Alvarez was a FNC medical contributor.
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