AMA meeting: Health risk information needed for Gulf oil spill
■ The AMA also will encourage water and air quality studies about areas affected by exposure to crude oil and will monitor the spill's environmental impact.
By Christine S. Moyer — Posted June 28, 2010
Chicago -- The House of Delegates said the AMA should take action on the Gulf Coast oil spill that has left the public worried and doctors uncertain of how to ease patients' fears.
The house adopted policy at the Association's Annual Meeting that calls for the AMA to help educate health professionals and the public on potential health risks associated with exposure to crude oil and byproducts. The policy will pair the AMA with federal agencies to convene an expert panel, which will address the immediate and long-term human and environmental health impacts of the oil spill.
The policy says the Association should encourage further studies of water and air qualities in areas near the spill, as well as health outcomes in affected people.
Elvin C. Irvin Jr., MD, a family physician in Pensacola, Fla., said patients there are worried about getting sick from chemicals in the oil. He said many doctors don't know the health effects of eating fish caught in the spill area or breathing vapors from carcinogens such as benzene, which is naturally found in crude oil.
"Patients are scared and they're nervous. ... The AMA [should] take [this] opportunity to educate patients and physicians in the area. ... This is a real challenge and a huge concern," said Dr. Irvin, a delegate for the Florida Medical Assn.
Since the April 20 oil rig explosion off the Louisiana coast, millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil-slicked water has washed up on the shores of Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, and strands of oil have been spotted off Mississippi's coast, according to reports.
U.S. Senate and House committees held hearings in June to evaluate the health impacts of the spill. The American Public Health Assn. applauded the legislators' efforts, insisting that individuals helping clean up the spill and that those living and working along the Gulf Coast need protection.
Some delegates at the Annual Meeting questioned whether the AMA has the resources to take a lead role in the matter. Others noted that the spill, for now, is largely an environmental disaster, not a medical problem.
"Public health includes the environment. It doesn't just include the people. We think this is very important," said Joseph Murphy, MD, an alternate delegate for the American Assn. of Public Health Physicians and an internist from Chicago.