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Growing Concerns of Exposure to Crude Oil

Those that live on the Gulf coastline are growing concerned with the possibility of coming in contact with oil from the oil spill. Although the CDC says that brief contact with oil or crude will not pose a serious threat, there are symptoms to look for and ways to properly clean oneself if a person should come in contact with crude oil. Additionally, there are serious issues to be concerned with if prolonged exposure occurs.

Those that live on the Gulf coastline are growing concerned with the possibility of coming in contact with oil from the oil spill.  Although the CDC says that brief contact with oil or crude will not pose a serious threat, it is recommended to clean the oil off the skin promptly with soap and water, baby oil, petroleum jelly or a widely used, safe cleaning compound such as a cleaning paste (sold at auto part stores) to avoid further skin conditions, such as dermatitis.

Persons that have prolonged contact with oil or from the vapors from the oil spill have more serious symptoms and the possibility of serious health issues.  Recently, fisherman who have taken the tedious task of trying to clean to crude off of the Gulf surface have gotten extremely ill from being downwind of the oil spill.  The same symptoms the fisherman were complaining of are listed on the CDC website for inhalation exposure to crude.

The wife of the fisherman explains the fisherman had to come home early because “the men had all the same symptoms at the same time — vomiting, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath.  Could it be a coincidence?… Here we are over a month and he’s still not completely well.”

Source – www.cnn.com

According to the CDC, coming in contact with crude, tar balls, etc can effect one’s health moderately to severely depending on how long that person has been exposed and how they came in contact with it:

Prolonged Skin Contact

Prolonged skin contact with crude oil and petroleum products can cause skin erythema (reddening), edema (swelling), and burning.  The skin effects can worsen by subsequent exposure to sunlight, because trace contaminants in the oil, such as the PAH’s are more toxic when exposed to light.  Skin contact can result in defatting of the skin, increasing the possibility of dermatitis and secondary skin infections.

Some persons may be, or may become sensitive to the crude oil.  Depending on the amount and duration of exposure, skin contact with crude oil may be mildly to moderately irritating; in a sensitive individual, the skin effects may be more pronounced after a small or shorter exposure.


Swallowing crude oil, unless in large quantities (less than eight ounces) is unlikely to result in more than transient nausea, possibly vomiting, gastrointestinal tract disturbances, and self limiting diarrhea.  However, vomiting and subsequent aspirations of hydrocarbons such as crude oil may result in significant lung injury.

Casualty Care Issues

Skin Contamination: Generally, the presence of crude oil on the patient should present no major complications; it can be wiped off whenever convenient in the treatment process.  Even so, two warnings should be noted:

  • Oil and oxygen-enriched atmospheres are potentially explosive. Hands oily from removing oily clothing from patients can be sufficiently contaminated to contaminate also fittings on oxygen-using treatment equipment, with potentially disastrous consequences. Oil on the face of a patient does not contraindicate O2 treatment, but it is important to remove oil-contaminated clothing and wipe the oil from the head, neck, and chest of the patient before placing the O2 mask. Because an oxygen-enriched atmosphere may exist for up to one foot from a nasal cannula or face mask, sources of ignition should not be used near oil-contaminated persons or clothing. In particular, before using a defibrillator, excess oil should be wiped off of the patient, particularly from the trunk and neck areas.
  • Oil-contaminated clothing removed from patients, and oily cloths or rags used to wipe off patients, represent a potential fire hazard due to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Such material should be stored in a metal container with a tight lid. Contaminated clothing and rags should not be left to accumulate but should be disposed of frequently.

Wound Contamination: Current industrial practice for external and superficial wound cleaning is being modified to include use of waterless hand cleaners, white petrolatum, mineral oil, corn oil, or Neosporin (triple antibiotic) ointment. These agents must be removed as completely as possible from within the wound after efforts to remove the crude oil have been completed.

Ocular Exposure: Ocular exposure can result in slight stinging and temporary redness. No permanent damage should result. The immediate treatment is to flush the eye with copious amounts of water for 15 minutes. If the person wears contacts, these should be removed first.

Ingestion Exposure: Following ingestion of a small amount of crude oil clinical signs of toxicity are generally limited to mild stomach disturbances. The main danger of swallowing crude oil is that can also get into the lungs causing chemical pneumonitis for example if ingested oil is vomited and subsequently aspirated into the lungs. To treat patients exposed via ingestion, do not induce vomiting as this may lead to aspiration of the crude oil into the lung.

Inhalation Exposure: Inhalation of fresh crude oil could result in inhalation of associated volatile hydrocarbons. Symptoms including headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea, or vomiting, may occur from breathing vapors given off by crude oil. Inhalation of weathered crude oil is of less concern because of the loss of volatile hydrocarbons. Remove the patient to a clear area and provide supplemental oxygen if needed.

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on June 9th, 2010

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