At a House committee hearing Wednesday,officials with the Department of Health and Human Services said it may be years before the impact of the BP oil spill is known.
“Oil can remain toxic in the environment for years,and we do not know the impact it could have on human health over the long term,” Deputy Assistance Secretary for Policy Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz said.
Dr. John Howard,the director of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,said he and his staff are monitoring the situation to better understand how it will affect the population. Working with state and local health departments,the CDC is creating a roster of everyone who might have had contact with oil and a questionnaire to give them.
Rep. Diana Degette,D-Colo.,asked the witnesses whether there was enough data to tell people about immediate health risks,instead of focusing on monitoring the situation. Kaplowitz,who works for the Office of Preparedness and Response,said there is not enough data to know the full extent of potential health risks.
“What are we going to tell everyone else?” Degette asked. “It does no good to just collect data if we don't have anything to tell people who live on the Gulf Coast. What are we going to tell them to do right now to protect themselves?”
Howard said CDC provides a list on its website of ways people can protect themselves,such as staying indoors if they smell gas or flushing their eyes with water for 15 minutes if oil gets in them.
Several House members talked about cleanup workers they have met who are receiving conflicting information about protective gear. For example,they said BP officials are telling workers to remove head gear because it can cause heat exhaustion.
Rep. Anna Eshoo,D-Calif.,asked the health officials if they believe BP is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its workers and if the officials have been given access to BP's heath test results.
“The most serious issue is what we don't have,and what I know we don't have,and have asked BP for,is a list of the 13,000 workers,” Howard said. “We have made that request several times in the last couple of weeks,and we yet to receive a response.”
The health risks associated with the oil dispersant chemical is one the most uncertain areas for health officials. Howard said he is not a fan of the dispersant in part because it is adding more chemicals to the water and previous tests were not on spills of this magnitude.
The CDC also asked BP to provide a sample of the dispersant for further testing,but the company has not responded.