Health Risks

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PEHSU Information on Gulf Coast Oil Spill
for Parents and Community Members

The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) Network encourage families, pediatricians, and communities to work together to ensure that children are protected from exposure to environmental hazards.

Children are at Risk

Environmental pollutants are especially harmful to children. They eat, drink, and breathe more than adults on a pound for pound basis. A child’s nose and mouth are closer to the ground than the nose and mouth of an adult; so children more easily breathe in pollutants in the air, which may accumulate close to the ground if they are heavier than air. Because children play on the ground, they are more likely to have skin contact with pollutants than adults. Toddlers may crawl and as a result, may get contaminated soil, sand and other substances on their hands and clothes. It is normal for toddlers to put their hands in their mouth so they will accidentally get more toxic substances in their bodies than older kids and adults.

About Oil

The oil washing up on shore is referred to as weathered oil. This means it has been mixed with seawater and exposed to sunlight and air. It is not the same as crude oil coming out of the ground nor like a refined oil such as motor oil. Understanding the potential risks to children is hard because so little is known about the toxicity of weathered oil and the mix of weathered oil and sand, often called “tar balls.” According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), skin and respiratory problems were the most common complaints from workers who cleaned up other oil spills. It is sensible to prevent children from touching or playing with oil on shore and from swimming in water contaminated with oil or products used for clean up. Parents should check with local health officials to find out which beaches or shore areas are affected (see links at end of fact sheet).

Steps to Take to Protect Children from Hazards

The oil spill in the Gulf Coast may expose children to potential pollutants and concerns. Until the oil spill is resolved, the following should be kept in mind:

• The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is testing the air, water, and soil. The substances being tested have the potential to cause various health effects depending upon the level of exposure, the length of exposure, and the susceptibility of the individuals exposed.

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is providing health guidance based upon these results.

• It is important to keep in mind that children may be especially at risk. Parents and caregivers should follow alerts issued by the state health department and local health departments. They should urge their children to do the same.

• Local Poison Control Centers (1-800-222-1222 or ) are available to respond to questions related to acute, sudden exposures.

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