It makes sense that most media attention has focused on the environmental impact of the BP oil spill on marine life, especially on the coastal ecosystems, says Dr. Joseph Prospero 1956, Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. But the dangers from the petroleum outflow could extend beyond the sea and land, he says.
As an atmospheric chemist, Prospero studies the aerosol chemistry of the marine atmosphere and the biogeochemical effects of the long range atmospheric transport of materials from the continents to the ocean environment. “The oil spill could conceivably have an impact on air quality and possibly on human health,” says Prospero, who graduated from Ursinus with a degree in chemistry.
“A large fraction of the oil mass is comprised of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). At the ocean surface, the VOCs rapidly evaporate when heated by the sun. Some of the compounds in the VOC fraction can have an impact on human health, for example benzene which makes up about 1 percent of the oil mass. The EPA and other researchers has been actively monitoring for total VOCs, benzene and other potentially harmful compounds. The EPA web site that reports on oil-spill related studies states that as of June 14th the air quality levels for ozone and particulates are normal on the Gulf coastline for this time of year.”
According to Prospero, people along the coastline have reported smelling pollutants typically associated with petroleum products. “Some of these chemicals may cause short-lived effects like headache, eye, nose and throat irritation, or nausea,” he says. “Humans can smell some of these chemicals at levels well below those that would cause short-term health problems. However, the EPA reports that levels appear to be too low to be a threat to human health. One reason for the relatively low concentrations is probably related to the fact that most of the VOCs are emitted to the atmosphere relatively close to the spill site.
Prospero says that as winds transport these emissions to coastal regions, atmospheric processes will dilute VOC concentrations by mixing the polluted air with clean air. — K.C.