August 18, 2022

Chemicals from Deepwater Horizon Spill Linked with Asthma Symptoms, NIH Finds

Exposure to oil spill chemicals is associated with asthma and asthma symptoms among cleanup workers, according to researchers involved in an ongoing study led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. An article published recently in the journal Environment International finds that workers involved in cleaning up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill were 60 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with asthma or have experienced asthma symptoms between one and three years after the spill, compared to people who completed cleanup work safety training but did not participate in the operation. None of the cleanup workers or comparison group members analyzed in the study had been diagnosed with asthma before the spill.

Researchers first estimated cleanup workers’ exposures to chemicals found in oil spills. Then they analyzed the relationship between the types of jobs held by the workers—and their resulting exposure to total hydrocarbons—and whether they had received doctors’ diagnoses for asthma or self-reported asthma symptoms. The study also examined health outcomes associated with exposures to a subgroup of crude oil chemicals collectively known as BTEX-H, which are also classified as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Workers’ relative risk for asthma symptoms was found to increase with their exposures to both individual BTEX-H chemicals and BTEX-H chemical mixtures. Researchers noted that exposures to hydrocarbons and BTEX-H chemicals varied based on workers’ specific cleanup jobs and how long they worked. Jobs included administrative support and water sampling, mopping up crude oil from sea or shoreline vessels, and decontaminating equipment and wildlife, with workers involved in operating, maintaining, or refueling heavy cleanup equipment having the highest incidence of asthma.

The authors of the Environment International article are researchers with the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study, also known as the GuLF STUDY. Under the leadership of NIEHS, the GuLF STUDY is the largest study aiming to assess the health of workers who responded to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

According to Dale Sandler, PhD, chief of NIEHS’ Epidemiology Branch and lead researcher for the GuLF STUDY, this is the first time that specific oil spill chemicals have been linked to respiratory disease. “If you were an oil spill cleanup worker in the gulf experiencing wheezing or other asthma-like symptoms,” said Sandler, “it would be good to let your healthcare provider know you worked on the oil spill.”

More information on the article and wider GuLF STUDY can be found in NIH’s Aug. 17 news release.