Oil Spill in our Ocean – The Human Hazards

The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill

By Dr Praveen Ramdaursingh

If we believe in caring it is imperative that we stop being masterly inactive but help in actions. With a massive ecological disaster in view, it is but natural that volunteers with a heart will come forward to help. However, it is important to realize in so doing in a field not so well-known to us there might be hazards to ourselves and also to society.

Indirect exposure to oil spills occur even to people living in places far from the actual site of the oil spill. This exposure occurs in people bathing in contaminated water even when an oil sheen may not be visible, the result of dissolved oil contaminants existing in water emanating from the tributaries, rivulets, rivers or canals…”


It is a fact that oil leaked in the ocean will impede the growth of plants, but also result in increase in algae formation which will create adverse effects on the growth of other aquatic plants.

Oil spill causes great damage to marine birds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, vast number of fish, oysters, crabs, corals and other aquatic creatures. The hardest hit during most oil spills are the marine birds.

We have witnessed an “élan” of solidarity and patriotic fervour from many organizations, NGOs, and the public. There have been many proposals, requests and advice to clear up the muck as fast as possible so as to limit the harm to the aquatic environment.

Oil spill also affects human health due to its toxological properties. People who are in contact with the polluted water for cleaning or for other reasons are more at risk. Oil spills may involve health risks to those staying in the coastal regions.

Some of the observed effects even indicated that several symptoms may persist for some years after exposure. Hence, health protection in these individuals should be a matter of concern; a health risk assessment needs to be carried out not only at the time of exposure but also for prolonged periods following exposure, to enable early detection of any potential exposure-related harmful effects.

Effects on the general population

The effects of oil spills on humans may be direct and indirect, depending on the type of contact with the oil spill.

The direct effect is caused by exposure to oil spills and also through breathing of the contaminated air. This emanates from the toxic gases emitted from the volatile products, and has a specific odour. Once in the air, contamination may travel over long distances, during which the vapours will become diluted. The original contamination levels at the source along with specific weather conditions may dictate the final spreading of oil contaminated air vapours. Even when odours are not smelt, a health risk may exist for some individual compounds if residents are breathing the contaminated air for a long time. Of course, when the smell is obvious the health risk increases.

Another common direct effect is exposure to people who come in direct contact with oil and/or oil products while walking in a contaminated area. An initial irritation will be obvious. Additionally, contaminants may be absorbed through the skin and enter the body

Indirect exposure to oil spills occur even to people living in places far from the actual site of the oil spill. This exposure occurs in people bathing in contaminated water even when an oil sheen may not be visible, the result of dissolved oil contaminants existing in water emanating from the tributaries, rivulets, rivers or canals.

Another means of indirect exposure is through eating contaminated food as some oil compounds bioaccumulate in living organisms and may become more concentrated along the food chain. The concentration of contaminants in the food may be higher than those in the contaminated environment.

The economic impact on health of individuals

The main oil spill effects include a variety of diseases, negative economic impact, pollution with crude oil or petroleum products and the aesthetic issues that affect the residents of the affected areas in multiple ways.

Oil spill has a major negative economic impact. Fishermen, boatmen, tourism pay a heavy toll. It also has an aesthetic and recreational impact. The sceneries appear dull and gloomy, recreational areas are closed,

All these have a great effect on the psyche of the people residing in the affected regions.

Mental health is related to the extent of disruption to participants’ lives, work, family, and social engagements. Those who have an oil spill-related income loss have an increased score on tension/anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, and total mood disturbance. They are less resilient and are more likely to use behavioural disengagement as a coping strategy.

A few tips to the worker/volunteer/helper

The first priority of the worker or helper is to protect himself.
It is important to wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment while helping whether one is in the water or in the coastal areas.
The basic PPEs are oil resistant boots and gloves, eye goggles, N95 respirators, level C PPE (splash suit), face mask.

Wear rubber type footwear and oil resistant gloves especially when dealing with oil and oil waste.
Beware of slips and falls and drowning hazards.
Beware of water contamination.
Ensure that you are already vaccinated against tetanus and hepatitis B.
Do not expose yourself to unknown liquids or substances. Inform the appropriate department immediately if you have such an experience.
Beware of the effects of heat exhaustion especially if you are wearing PPEs. Do get hydrated on a regular basis. Drink water and other fluids. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks.
Use lip balms, sunscreen and protective eyewear to prevent sunburn.
Be careful of trench (immersion) foot if feet stay in the water for prolonged time – they become numb, swollen, itchy, painful, and red with blisters. One must change wet shoes and socks regularly to dry ones and keep legs elevated when resting.
Beware of poisonous plants – if there has been skin contact immediately rub with alcohol and seek medical help.
Wash hands and get properly sanitized after each session.
Other health hazards are dermatitis, irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.
Open wounds absorb more of the toxic materials.
Chemicals can be swallowed from the air or can land directly on the food.
It should be noted that that the fishing restrictions in the areas affected by oil spill pollution are necessary since the consumption of contaminated fish could have serious health effects, especially due to the bioaccumulation of some chemicals in the fish.

Dr C.S (Praveen) Ramdaursingh
Obstetrician& Gynaecologist, Secretary of Association ‘Believe in Caring’


* Published in print edition on 11 August 2020

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