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Oil puts human health and beaches at risk

Six inches under the sugar-like sand of Pensacola Beach, a USF researcher discovered a vein of oil Thursday that stretches eight miles along the shoreline – just a day after oil from the massive Deepwater Horizon spill washed up on Florida’s coast for the first time.

USF geologist Ping Wang said the oil arrived on the beach by high tide Wednesday and was then covered by sand during high tide Thursday.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, clean-up crews reported picking up 44,955 pounds of tar balls and oil material by noon on Thursday. Wang said this clean-up practice may prove to be “inadequate” because crews are only cleaning up the surface of the beach.

“This is going to be hard to clean up,” he said. “It’s going to need to be a much larger scale effort than what we’re seeing.”

Wang said he’s worried that any violent water activity – such as a storm or heavy waves – would pick up the buried oil sheet and lift it farther up shore, onto clean sand.

“People need to know,” Wang said, “the beach is not going to be the same for a long time.”

USF Coastal Research Lab geologist Rip Kirby used ultraviolet light on the sand Thursday night to see the orange flecks of oil – or, “volatile organic compounds” – that were scattered across the beach.

Kirby said the flecks became scattered on the beach because of the way the clean-up crews picked up the tar balls.

“They scooped it up with nets and shook it,” Kirby said. “Yes, they’ve removed the tar balls, but they’ve also coated clean sand with oil.”

Despite the presence of oil on beaches, many residents and tourists continue to head to the shores to sunbathe, raising concerns for health officials.

To get a better grasp on the effects of oil on human health, the U.S. Institute of Medicine convened a symposium of health experts this month in New Orleans.

According to the Times, 11 oil spill workers have been hospitalized with nausea, dizziness and chest pains, but none of these symptoms have been concretely linked to either the oil, the oil dispersant Corexit, heat, fatigue or a combination of all the factors.

“Some scientists say there’s little or no toxicity from the oil,” U.S. Surgeon Gen. Regina Benjamin said to the Times. “Others express serious concerns.”

USF Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) safety trainer Artie Bayandrian said that he is often “taken aback” by scenes of people along the shores and in the waters of oil coated beaches – sometimes even handling globs of oil without any protective gear on.

“The workers are wearing those suits for a very good reason,” he said. Bayandrian teaches safety procedures daily to consultants at USF’s OSHA Training Institute Education Center.

He said the oil found in fields differs from the type found under water, so the center will collect and test samples to determine what kinds of protective gear needs to be worn when handling it.

“You may be exposed today and not realize the effects for six months or six years,” Bayandrian said. “We just don’t fully know how bad exposure can be, so we don’t like to take chances with workers’ future well-being.”