AMA House of Delegates

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 — Posted June 28, 2010

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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.


The oil spill in the Gulf has left patients scared and nervous, says Elvin C. Irvin Jr., MD, a delegate from the Florida Medical Assn., who called for education about potential health effects. Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson /

"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.

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Meeting notes: Public health

Issue: Despite efforts to educate parents about the safety of vaccines, a 2010 Pediatrics study found that 25% of American parents still believe that some immunizations cause autism in healthy children.

Proposed action: Ask the Office of the Surgeon General to offer a definitive repudiation of the link between either thimerosol-containing vaccines or the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and developmental disorders, such as autism. [Adopted]

Issue: People of color are significantly affected by skin cancer, but awareness of prevention and screening is low.

Proposed action: Encourage and support efforts that increase awareness of skin cancer risks and sun-protective behavior in communities of color. [Adopted]

Issue: Prescription monitoring programs help physicians track the narcotics their patients are on, but confidentiality rules mean that those medications given as part of opioid treatment programs are not included.

Proposed action: Seek changes to allow states more flexibility in requiring reporting to prescription monitoring programs. [Adopted]

Issue: An increasing number of children and adolescents are being treated with atypical antipsychotic medications, but there is limited evidence on their safety and efficacy in this age group.

Proposed action: Ask the AMA Council on Science and Public Health to prepare a report on the safety and appropriate use of drugs in the pediatric population. [Adopted]

Issue: Unused over-the-counter and prescription drugs are getting into the hands of those who shouldn't have them, such as children. They also are polluting the environment.

Proposed action: Support initiatives designed to promote safe and proper disposal of unused medications. [Adopted]

Issue: Adolescents are not getting enough sleep, and this is leading to a host of health problems.

Proposed action: Identify insufficient sleep and sleepiness in adolescents as a public health issue. [Adopted]

Issue: The adult film industry is an $11 billion industry in the U.S., and performers in this occupation are subject to public health concerns, including multiple sex partners during short periods. More than 2,850 cases of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, were diagnosed among 2,000 such performers from 2004 to 2008.

Proposed action: Support legislation that requires mandatory condom use in the production of adult films. That would make it easier for local health departments and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate and control occupational exposures to infectious diseases and enforce workplace regulations in a timely manner. Urge that occupational standards be enforced to reduce exposure to infectious diseases within the adult film industry. [Adopted]

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