Saturday, May 08, 2010

Saturday BP Oil Spill Update: The Smell of Oil

1. Olfactory Sensations.

Multiple reports began circulating yesterday that the smell of oil has reached Pensacola Beach. One beach friend writes, "This scent is just -- WRONG. Smells like an industrial plant or heavy equipment garage, not like the lovely scents of the sea."
Almost made me cry -- not from fumes (it's nowhere near that strong), but just because it smelled like an omen, a forerunner of much worse to come. I HOPE I'M WRONG.

I flagged down a passing PBeach fire/rescue truck to let them know. They didn't seem impressed. Told me, yeah, it's out there, about 25 miles offshore (I thought it was 50; they reiterated 25). Told me it wasn't surprising I'd smelled it, what with the wind from that direction. The driver said let's hope that's all we get from it, is the smell.
Sean Dugas of the News Journal reports beach lifeguards began detecting "a kerosene-like smell" about 5 pm: "The smell was reported at various locations on Pensacola Beach as well as in the Navarre and Gulf Breeze areas."

2. Health Hazard.

The smell won't kill you, we suppose, but the oily source could. The public's attention largely has been trained on the widespread death of sea life certain to occur because of BP's Deepwater oil gusher. Surprisingly little has been written about the hazards to human health.

Expect that to change in the coming weeks. Beyond the foreseeable short-term "headaches, nausea, coughing and throat irritation," Business Week reports the oil spill poses "significant" and "long term" health risks for people. Dr. Gina Solomon of the National Resources Defense Council says the health hazards arise from direct exposure as well as through a contaminated food chain:
Health-care workers and the general public alike could face risks by inhaling various components of crude oil, such as benzene, toluene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, all of which may cause cancer, according to the NRDC.

Crude oil also contains mercury and lead, both of which can be dangerous if inhaled or swallowed, the group stated.

Among the most serious life-threatening health risks are cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Dr. Solomon explains that "chemicals like benzene... can be released in a vapor phase from the oil that's floating in the water."
These chemicals can cause acute health effects such as headache, nausea, vomiting, cough, dizziness. The chemicals can also cause longer-term effects, including the potential for miscarriage or low birth weight in pregnant women and risk of cancer over the longer term.
As the oil comes closer, smelling the beach air may be like pointing a gas hose at your head and squeezing the trigger.

3. Dispensing with Dispersants.

The New Orleans Times Picayune reports the underwater injection of dispersants at the site of BP's oil spill "were halted Thursday." The reason given is that, "science knows so little about life on the ocean floor that it's impossible to know what harm was being done by piping the antifreeze-like chemicals to the source of gushing oil some 5,000 feet below the water's surface."

Now they tell us? As a well known war criminal might have told them, we already knew what we didn't know. So, a question logically arises which reporter Sheila Grissett, to her credit, asks outright: "Was it a mistake to disperse in deep water in the first place?"

LSU professor of environmental sciences Ralph Portier offers this answer:
"We don't even have enough data to say that. We just don't know.''
It shouldn't surprise us if the answer eventually makes it way up the food chain: 'We've all died.'

4. Oil Spill Weather Report.

Locally, TV and radio weathermen have been forecasting the likely direction of oil slick sloshes with the same enthusiasm usually reserved for hurricanes in the Gulf and swirling winds in Tornado Alley. Even boatless beach people like us pay rapt attention to marine forecasts and wave height measurements of at-sea buoys.

Speaking of new internet tools to track the oily destruction of the Gulf Coast, the University of South Florida has developed an experimental animated Daily Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill weather map. (Click on the image, left, and choose the speed of animation to see the latest oil sludge forecast.)

5. The Facebook of Ignorance.

All in all, weathermen included, the BP oil disaster daily has been re-teaching us a lesson we seem to have forgotten, over and over, at least since May 7, 1954: Neither the various governments we elect, nor the multi-nation corporations, nor the "experts" have a clue. As Xeni Jarden asks over at Boing-Boing, "What's the only thing that could possibly make the catastrophic Gulf oil spill any worse?"

The answer? A "joint U.S.-BP" Facebook page!


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