Smells like Tasman Spirit

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

On July 27, 2003, the oil tanker Tasman Spirit ran aground at the entrance to the port city of Karachi.  Laden with sweet crude, the vessel lay beached for two weeks before eventually breaking up and spilling 35,000 tons (10,780,000 gallons) of her cargo into the bay, from which an estimated 11,000 metric tons of toxic gasses known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) evaporated into the air.

Fumes from the volatile organic compounds and mist containing hydrocarbons, accompanied by a strong smell, dispersed into the residential area, the researchers and others said. Local hospitals reported many cases of headaches, nausea and dizziness and seventeen schools in the vicinity were closed for about a week. Local media showed pictures of piles of dead fish and turtles on the oiled beach.

The tragic incident so close to a large city provided a chance to test the effects of oil spill VOCs on densely populated areas. Immediately following the spill, researchers began to study the health impact of the noxious fumes on the city’s approximately 700,000 affected residents.  

For millions of people on the Gulf Coast either living or soon to be living under a similar cloud, the results of the study are not encouraging.

Major hydrocarbons of toxicological interest are benzene, xylene and toulene.… Previous studies conducted to assess the health effects of oil spill reported an increase in occurrence of sore eyes, sore throat, headache, skin itching and rash, nausea, vomiting and breathing difficulties among those exposed to the vapors of crude oil .  The results of our study are consistent with these results.

Further, wheezing accompanied with shortness of breath is an acute condition that occurs in bouts after exposure to certain substances which trigger it off. These substances in this particular case were the crude oil vapors. This further suggest role of exposure in occurrence of asthmatic symptoms.

While the Tasman Spirit study focused primarily on the short term health effects of prolonged VOC exposure of about 15 days, the long term effects can be even worse.

Exposure to oil spill fumes and contact with the oil can sometimes lead to benzene poisoning. Benzene, a solvent used in the chemical industry, is a known carcinogen, causing an array of cancers, including leukemia. Aside from that, prolonged exposure to oil fumes can ultimately result in damage to the nervous or respiratory systems.

Yet despite clear scientific evidence of significant public health issues related to fumes emanating from crude oil spills, US Federal and state officials in the Gulf continue to downplay and trivialize the problem.

Official government responses range from outright denial…

Petroleum fumes are now in all coastal counties. Dr. Bob Travnicek with the (Mississippi) State Department of Health reiterated to WLOX the fumes are not dangerous. Travnicek advises people who are more sensitive to the smell to stay indoors.

to absurdism…

The odor is not a medical risk. It’s more so the byproducts. People don’t really know at this point exactly what the issues are going to be with the oil spill,” Monica Z. Knight, the (Alabama) Director of Disease Control and Emergency Preparedness, said.

“It smells like fuel. If a person is bothered by that it could come across as a headache, nausea, vomiting, maybe a little dizziness,” she added. If you can bear the smell when you’re filling up your vehicle at a gas station, then officials said you should be able to cope with the odors from the oil slick.

to ‘smell no evil’.

There are concerns that vapors from the oil and controlled fires might cause health problems for people living in the region. An oil smell could cause headaches or nausea, but (US) EPA spokesman Dave Bary said Saturday there have been no confirmed reports of such problems.

The Federal EPA spokesman’s response is especially disturbing given previously published reports of strong fumes in downtown New Orleans:

Mandie Landry, an attorney who works in the city’s Central Business District, told Yahoo! News that “it smells like it’d smell if a bus was in front of you blowing out exhaust fumes right in your face.”

   Another local resident, Tulane University employee Laura Mogg, told us that she caught wind of the “terrible” and “gag-inducing” smell from her office building on the school’s sprawling uptown campus. “I smelled it the second I opened the door,” she said. “Really, it’s that strong.”

As I asked in a previous comment, is there anybody in authority willing to proactively address the very real hazards posed by VOCs from the Gulf slick to the health of over 50 million Gulf Coast residents?  Why are officials, from those at the President’s EPA on down, content to remain in studied denial of this clear and present danger?

After all, it’s damn near impossible to implement a credible mitigation response to a serious public health crisis as long as the people in charge are unwilling to acknowledge that the problem even exists.


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  1. I can reassure you about?

  2. You’re encouraged to work with them under a fume hood.  Nasty enough. Gulf residents won’t have an adequate fume hood.

  3. at Daily Monarchist.

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