Respiratory Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill

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So what do we really know about the effects of the oil spill and those with asthma? We are not yet aware how hazardous direct contact and/or inhalation of vapors and chemicals from the gulf are to those with asthma and respiratory disorders. We have learned some lessons about the effects of oil spills from post-exposure after the Exxon Valdez oil, spill among others. In some studies, lower respiratory tract symptoms were more common in clean up workers, even after the exposure ended.

The clean up of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may increase the risk for those in particular with respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). As such, some of the health effects of concern include the following:

1. There is a potential for health effects as a result of exposure to airborne vapors and smoke of the burning crude oil that may aggravate respiratory symptoms

2. Persistent low level exposure may cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, as well as cough

3. In addition to those with respiratory disorders and heart disease, very young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to airborne air pollutants

As with any source of airborne air pollution, it is essential to optimally control nasal allergies, as well as respiratory problems, such as asthma. Here are some strategies that can assist you or a family member with respiratory conditions such as asthma:

1. Plan ahead and keep an adequate supply of needed asthma and allergy medications on hand.

2. If you have asthma, monitor daily peak flow readings to reduce "highs" and "lows" and discuss a plan to modify your need for medications

3. Develop a written asthma action plan and review the proper use of long term, as well as quick relief medications, with your asthma specialist.

4. Attempt to reduce exposure to air pollutants and other allergy causing triggers

Develop a partnership with your allergist and/or respiratory specialist to control respiratory symptoms and "breathe easier." To find an allergist in your area, visit

Dr. Clifford W. Bassett is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Long Island College Hospital and on the faculty of NYU School of Medicine. He is the current chair for public education committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. No information in this blog is intended as medical advice to any reader or intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For more information on this topic, visit Dr. Bassett's web site