The Oil Spill on the Mississippi River

| July 2008

An Analysis of Health Effects of Fuel Oil's Pollution on Drinking Water

More than 400,000 Gallons of Fuel Oil Spilled into the Mississippi River

More than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil were spilled into the Mississippi River when a barge collided with a tanker near Gretna, Louisiana (near downtown New Orleans), splitting the barge nearly in half, on early July 23, 2008. The oil slick reached most of the way to the Gulf of Mexico, posing a serious threat to the fragile delta ecosystem. As a result of the barge-tanker collision, about 100 miles of the Mississippi River were closed to shipping traffic a day later. This was the largest oil spill on the Mississippi since 2000.

oil spill

Specifically, the collision led to a spill of more than 419,000 gallons (1.6 million liters) of number 6 fuel oil (thick industrial fuel) early in the morning, at 1:30 AM. The 600-foot oil tanker Tintomara collided with an American Commercial Lines barge that was being pushed by a tug boat. Only approximately 6,900 gallons of oil had been cleaned from the fast-flowing river by midday a day after the oil spill.

Paul Book, vice president of American Commercial Lines Inc. of Jeffersonville, Indiana (U.S.A.), which owns the barge, told the Associated Press that he had deployed 350 cleanup workers using 45 boats. The workers initially set out some 50,000 feet of containment booms to collect the fuel oil and planned to lay down another 30,000 feet while some used vacuum skimmers. "This is a very large, very fast-moving river. It makes the job very difficult to contain the oil," Charlie Henry, scientific coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told an Associated Press reporter (AP, July 24, 2008). The U.S. Coast Guard used 13 vacuum skimmers to collect the oil.

The shutdown of a 100-mile stretch of river to the Gulf of Mexico halted vessels ranging from oil supertankers to grain barges in one of the world's busiest ports. Gary LaGrange, executive director of the Port of New Orleans, told AP that a recent economic impact study conducted by the port showed that such a total shutdown could cost the national economy up to U.S.$275 million per day.

The fuel oil will pollute Mississippi's 2,300-mile length and its tributaries—along with farm fertilizers and chemical runoff, sewage-treatment effluent, and other pollutants. The oil spill was the largest on the river since November 2000, when a tanker ran aground about 40 miles south of New Orleans, spilling more than half a million gallons of crude oil on the Mississippi River, which closed some 26 miles of the river.

Environmentalists and government officials were concerned about the impact of the oil spill on the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, at the mouth of the Mississippi (The New York Times, July 25, 2008). Specifically, fish, birds, and other wildlife in the Mississippi and the Delta could be adversely affected. It will take months and years for microorganisms in the soil to fully break down the heavy fuel after the fuel contaminated the wildlife refuge.

Photographs: A cleanup crew during Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (U.S.A.), and volunteer cleaning up after the Prestige oil spill in Galicia Coast, Spain.

Six to Seven Million Gallons of Oil Spilled in Hurricane Katrina of 2005

During the severe storm of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, refineries and pipelines were damaged, leading to a spill of approximately 6 to 7 million gallons of oil (the figure varies according to different sources).

Photographs: Fuel often leaks from underground tankers into groundwater, and when oil-tanker trucks carrying fuel get into accidents, they also spill fuel into the environment. Fuel leaks from above-ground tanks can be monitored better than those buried underground.

Physiologic Effects of Oil and Gasoline Toxicity

July 23, 2008, an oil spill on the Mississippi River led to a lawsuit filed two days later by residents near the river who alleged that they were exposed to fuel oil fumes. An AP reporter said that a fuel odor hung in the air in the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans a day after the spill (AP, July 25, 2008). A New York Times reporter wrote that "The pungent oil smell kept tourists in the French Quarter away from a riverside path" (The New York Times, July 25, 2008). The reporter also said,

"...the picturesque walk along the Mississippi at the French Quarter, normally full of tourists and pedestrians, was nearly deserted as a pungent chemical stench wafted up from the oil-covered water..." (The New York Times, July 25, 2008).

So if these residents have to prove in court about their inhalation and exposure to fuel oil fumes can cause serious bodily injury and harm, how can they do so? Fortunately for these residents, the science of exposure to fuel oil fumes is well-established.

According to Scientific American (July 25, 2008), in a recent court decision capping damages in any subsequent lawsuit at the actual harm inflicted, two days after the oil spill, the damage amounts to an estimated U.S.$300,000, according to the U.S. Coast Guards—although it will depend on how the spill affects ships trying to make it to New Orleans.

According to physicians and researchers, the major target organ of gasoline exposure is the central nervous system. Inhalation is the most common route of exposure, but drinking or ingesting gasoline in small amounts can result in severe toxicity: a single oral dose of approximately 10 milliliters per kilogram (mL/kg) body weight (or about 700 mL for an adult) can be lethal (National Institute of Medicine, 1995).

According to the National Institute of Medicine (1995), contact with liquid gasoline can cause an acute burning sensation in the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, and prolonged contact can lead to dermatitis and can defat the skin. But the most serious damage is in the central nervous system (CNS). Neurotoxicity of gasoline is known: CNS depression is the first systemic effect of acute gasoline overexposure; overexposure can also cause facial flushing, ataxia, vertigo, mental confusion, headaches, blurred vision, slurred speech, and difficulty swallowing. At higher gasoline concentrations, coma and death can occur within a few minutes without any of the previous symptoms. At lower, nonlethal concentrations, some people can recover completely from dizziness and irritation (in eyes, skin, nose, and throat), but in some rare cases, there were reported cases of permanent brain damage.

There are also respiratory effects associated with inhaling gasoline vapor—as in the cases of the cleanup crew of gasoline spills and others involved in the spill accidents. Gasoline is a respiratory-tract irritant at high concentrations. At lethal concentrations, medical examiners have found through autopsies of people who died from gasoline overexposure to have suffered pulmonary congestion, edema, acute exudative tracheobronchitis, and intrapulmonary hemorrhage before death (National Institute of Medicine, 1995).

Benzene in gasoline is a known human carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance), and there is multistage theories of carcinogenesis that predict that a person's susceptibility to benzene-induced leukemia will depend upon the age at which exposure occurs, as the probability of transition through the stage (or stages) of the disease process unaffected by benzene exposure are assumed to be age-dependent (Thomas, 1988).

A scientist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that made two findings regarding benzene in gasoline and its link to leukemia, as follows (Richardson, 2008):

The association between leukemia mortality and benzene exposures was of greatest magnitude in the 10 years immediately after exposure. Leukemia was more strongly associated with benzene exposures accrued at 45 years of age.

The scientist concluded that more "attention should be given to evaluating the susceptibility of older workers to benzene-induced leukemia" (Richardson, 2008).

Oil and Gasoline in Our Drinking Water: Avoiding These Toxic Chemicals by Filtering Water with Reverse-Osmosis Systems

After more than 400,000 gallons of fuel oil were spilled into the Mississippi River on July 23, 2008, New Orleans Mayor Ray C. Nagin urged "moderation" in the consumption of tap water. "The mayor's saying, 'Drink the water in moderation,' so does that mean I'm going to get moderately sick? Or are my guests going to get moderately sick?" cafe owner Ed Moise was quoted as saying by the Times-Picayune and republished by the AFP (July 25, 2008).

News crews reported that local New Orleans residents rushed to buy bottled water despite assurances by the Sewerage and Water Board that the drinking water was safe (AFP, July 25, 2008). But apparently, the oil spill affected the drinking water of New Orleans—the New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin urged "moderation" in the consumption of tap water (AFP, July 25, 2008).

The New York Times also reported that Mayor Nagin told residents of the city's neighborhoods on the east bank of the Mississippi that "they could safely drink the tap water, though he was more cautious about water in the one neighborhood on the west bank, Algiers" (July 25, 2008). In the meantime, it was reported that water-intake facilities in the neighboring parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines remained closed. Officials told news reporters that "there were no respiratory risks," despite the sometimes heavy odor (The New York Times, July 25, 2008).

The Washington Post reported that the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans closed down its raw water intake at Algiers immediately after the oil spill occurred. Approximately 55,000 households in Algiers, Gretna, and Plaquemines Parish were asked to minimize water use (tap water), although city officials said: "the tap water was safe to drink." Mayor Nagin ordered independent testing of the city's water (Washington Post, July 25, 2008).

So, aside from buying bottled water or not drinking tap water altogether, what can people do? Actually, oil and gasoline residues can be filtered using common household reverse-osmosis (R.O.) systems. But these chemicals cannot be removed by boiling the drinking water, as boiling can only eliminate the bacteria and viruses in the water.

It is best to have a home reverse-osmosis system installed in case of accidental contamination of our drinking water, as has been demonstrated by this accidental oil spill in the middle of the night on July 23, 2008. Our streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater (wells), and other sources of drinking water have been assaulted by our industries, our neglect, and our carelessness. In addition to fuel oil, there are accidental spills of stormwater (during heavy storms), accidental sewage spills, accidental spills of other chemicals being transported by tanker trucks and ships, the persistent runoff of agricultural synthetic fertilizer and chemicals (e.g., pesticides, herbicides), and even undecomposed chemicals released with the supposed treated wastewater effluent from sewage-treatment plants (such as many pharmaceutical residues and metabolites, which cannot be broken down during conventional sewage treatment).

So, what are we the people supposed to do? Again, it is safest for all of us to install a reverse-osmosis filtration system at home so that we can always have peace of mind that we are drinking the safest possible water.


National Institute of Medicine. "Case Studies in Environmental Medicine: Gasoline Toxicity," by David Logan, MD and MPH (guest contributor); and Richard Dart, MD and PhD (guest editor); for Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in Environmental Medicine: Integrating a Missing Element into Medical Education. 1995. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

David B. Richardson. 2008. "Temporal Variation in the Association between Benzene and Leukemia Mortality," in Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 116, Number 3, March 2008, pages 370-374.

D.C. Thomas. 1988. "Models for exposure-time-response relationships with applications to cancer epidemiology," in Annual Review of Public Health, Volume 9, pages 451-482.

AFP. July 25, 2008. "Massive oil spill clogs Mississippi River."

The Associated Press. July 24, 2008. "Miss. River spill idles ships near New Orleans," by Alan Sayre.

The Associated Press. July 25, 2008. "First ships crawl up Mississippi after spill," by Alan Sayre.

The New York Times. July 25, 2008. "Mississippi River Reopened after Oil Spill," by Adam Nossiter.

Scientific American. July 25, 2008. "Oil spill tars Mississippi River," by David Biello.

Thomson Financial News Limited. July 25, 2008. "Massive oil spill clogs Mississippi River."

The Washington Post. July 25, 2008. "Spill Forces Ships to Anchor Long Stretch of Mississippi Closed for Attempted Oil Cleanup," by Holly Watt. Page A04.

Let's Protect Our Precious Streams and Rivers from Toxic Oil Spills!

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