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Poison centers fielding calls concerning oil spill

GULF COAST — More than 100 people have called Gulf region poison centers since the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico April 20, either to receive information or to report side effects from the resulting oil spill.

Dr. Mark Ryan, managing director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said he expects to see that number rise as the oil continues to leak and spread.

“Louisiana is a particularly difficult area to clean because the marshes are grassy with muddy bottoms that have very low oxygen content,” he said. “It’s not conducive to breaking oil down. We may be dealing with this for decades.”

As of June 2, Gulf region centers reported a total of 45 calls reporting a poison exposure related to the spill. An additional 64 callers have contacted their poison center to seek medical information about the spill.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals are among the agencies urging those exposed to toxins related to the spill to call their local poison center for guidance, and the Louisiana center is working with the state’s Center for Epidemiology and Environmental Toxicology to gauge the number of poison exposures related to the spill. “We are collaborating to obtain the most comprehensive picture of the exposures that are occurring,” Ryan said.

In addition, the Gulf region poison centers are providing data to federal agencies including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

Poison centers provide information about calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers National Poison Data System. When someone calls a poison center after being exposed to an oil spill-related poison, be it skin contact with oil, inhalation of fumes, or exposure to the dispersants used to treat the spill, staff at the centers enter a “tracking code” that links the call to the oil spill. This marks the first time one code has been used to track the varied exposures and medical outcomes stemming from a disaster with potentially wide-reaching consequences.

So far, the most common symptom reported to centers has been throat irritation, followed by headaches. Other callers have reported symptoms including nausea, chest pain, dizziness and coughs. Most calls so far have involved inhalation of fumes. Poison centers in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Mississippi have received calls about poison exposures related to the spill.

“Poison centers are perfectly poised to be a go-to health care resource during a disaster,” said Jim Hirt, executive director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. “There’s a reason that state and federal health agencies are relying on information from Gulf region poison centers – these centers provide an invaluable public health service.”

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