Information on Gulf Coast Oil Spill Related to Children's Health
Available from The American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT), and the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) Network, which encourages families, pediatricians, and communities to work ogether to ensure that children are protected from exposure to environmental hazards.
Children are Vulnerable
Environmental hazards 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. They may have increased exposure if their hands aren't washed before eating, if they put their hands in their mouths after crawling through a contaminated area or if there's absorption of chemicals across the skin from clothing, etc.
Children are in a critical period of development when toxic exposures can have profound negative effects, and their exploratory behavior often places them in direct contact with materials that adults would avoid. In the aftermath of an oil spill, particular attention should be paid to physical dangers, water contamination, and exposure to substances or situations that ould potentially harm children. This situation may become more complex if there are hurricanes/storms or floods.
Steps to Take to Protect Children from Hazards
The oil spill in the Gulf Coast may expose children to a number of hazards and concerns. Until the oil spill is resolved, the following should be kept in mind:
Recommendations for contact with shore areas or involvement with clean up efforts:
Potential for unknown risk:
There may be unknown risks or health effects from exposure to the oil or other toxic agents.
The oil washing up on shore is referred to as weathered oil. This means it has not only been mixed with seawater but also exposed to sunlight and air. It is not like crude oil coming out of the ground or refined oil like motor oil. For parents and health care providers, understanding the potential risks to children is difficult because so little is known about the toxicity of weathered oil and the resulting weathered oil mixed with sand which are 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 previous spills, but little is known about long‐term effects. It is prudent to restrict children from touching or playing with oil that makes its way to shore and from swimming in water contaminated with oil or dispersants. Parents should check with local health officials to determine which beaches or shore areas are affected (see state links on main page).
Frequently asked questions:
1. What if my child is exposed to oil?
2. What if there is a bad smell or odor?
Smelling a bad odor does not automatically mean that the polluted air will cause injury. For many substances related to the spill, the ability to smell an odor may be at levels below those shown, primarily in adults, to cause injury.
There is very little information on these exposures to children, particularly over the long term. Children with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma may be more vulnerable. The most recent data, as of June 16, 2010, indicates that air levels of volatile organic compounds, semi‐volatile organic compounds, and sulfur containing compounds are below occupational health references but may be above some individual’s odor threshold. In addition, these levels may change over time as conditions in the gulf are changing. It is prudent, therefore, to periodically recheck monitoring information.
3. Should I wear a face mask of some kind?
4. My child has asthma, what should I do?
5. What about seafood contamination?
It is very important to learn about changing closures and to strictly obey all fishing and oyster bed restrictions. As of June 16, 2010, seafood caught in areas that remain open for fishing are recognized by public health and food experts as being safe to eat. However, to be safe, follow the usual rules and do not eat food that has an unpleasant or unusual smell or that astes differently than expected.
6. Is it safe for my children to play on the beach or go in the ocean?
Common sense would suggest that beachgoers should avoid swimming in water that's visibly contaminated by oil. Remember that children tend to swallow water when they swim unlike most adults. Crude oil contains many toxic chemicals, including volatile and semi‐volatile organic compounds. Fresh crude oil is a skin irritant that may cause redness, burning and even ulcers with prolonged contact. Not surprisingly, children can be more vulnerable to environmental contaminants than adults. Fortunately the more toxic chemicals tend to disperse and evaporate and the spill is far off shore.
Most of the oil washing up along the coast has been ‘weathered’ into tar balls that are less toxic. Even so, it is prudent to discourage your children from touching or playing ith any tar balls or oil slicks. Though the oil washing up on the beaches probably isn't as harsh, it's till a good idea to keep it off your skin.
7. How long should children be allowed to play outdoors when we can smell the oil?
8. Is my water safe to drink?
9. Members of my family are working on cleanup. Are there precautions we should take?
Talking to Children and Helping them to Cope is Important
Disclaimer: Based upon interpretation of the current literature, the organizations listed above are providing this guidance for persons who wish to take a precautionary approach to personal ecisions, and is not meant to substitute for personal medical consultation with your health care rovider.
The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit Program wishes to acknowledge assistance in the evelopment by The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Clinical oxicology and the coendorsement of the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology .
This material was developed by the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC) and funded under the cooperative agreement award number 1U61TS00011801 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Acknowledgement: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the PEHSU by providing funds to ATSDR under InterAgency Agreement number DW75923013010.
Neither EPA nendorse the purchase of any commercial products or services mentioned in PEHSU publicat or ATSDR ions. July 1, 2010