How Might the Huntington Beach Oil Spill Affect Human Health?

oil spill

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Key Takeaways

  • An oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach in California has contaminated miles of beach, ocean and wetlands with toxic petroleum.
  • Oil spills can harm wildlife and ecosystems, polluting drinking water and food systems for both animals and humans.
  • Experts say the long-term health effects to communities that are exposed to oil spills are not well understood and require more research.

A pipeline off the coast of Orange County ruptured last week, spewing more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, threatening wildlife and blackening beaches up and down the coast.

Clean-up efforts are underway. California governor Gavin Newsom issued an emergency declaration for Orange County on Monday, freeing up workers and resources to help with clean-up efforts. 

The city of Laguna Beach closed all beaches to the public, and Newport Beach issued a warning to people to avoid contact with ocean water and soiled areas of the beach. Amplify Energy—the company that owns the pipeline—said that the leak appears to have stopped and divers identified a slit in the pipe.

Interacting with oil slicks, touching tar balls, and breathing air around oil spills can cause rashes and irritation, health officials warn. A 2018 medical study on the long-term health effects for clean-up workers of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill indicate crude oil exposure can cause problems with the heart, lung, liver, and other organs.

The long-term health outcomes for communities with low levels of exposure aren't yet well studied. As workers scramble to contain the contaminants, public health officials are urging people to be cautious around the site of the spill.

"In a year that has been filled with incredibly challenging issues, this oil spill constitutes one of the most devastating situations that our community has dealt with in decades," Huntington Mayor Kim Carr said on Sunday. "We are doing everything in our power to protect the health and safety of our residents, our visitors and our natural habitats."

Exposure to Oil Spills Can Cause Various Health Problems

Exposure to both crude oil and dispersants—chemicals used in clean-up efforts to break down oil into smaller droplets—can be harmful. A 2021 medical study of the DWH oil spill showed that depending on which part of the clean-up workers' body is exposed to the chemicals and for how long, they may develop skin rashes and irritation of the eyes, nose, and ears.

"Even when an oil sheen may not be visible, dispersed and dissolved oil contaminants may exist in the water," County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said in a statement.

As ocean waves and dispersants break down crude oil slicks, compounds like hydrocarbons, particulate matter and carbon monoxide diffuse into the air. People may inhale these toxic particles, which can damage their lungs.

Breathing crude oil vapors can cause coughing, throat and nose irritation, dizziness, headache, and nausea, according to a 2016 medical study of the DWH clean-up workers. This is particularly worrisome for vulnerable populations like children, older adults and people with lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, says Maureen Lichtveld, MD, MPH, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

The airborne chemicals probably effect people differently based on how close they are to the source, and how soon after the spill it is, Lichtveld says.

Workers who assist with the clean-up process are perhaps the most at risk for poor health outcomes after an oil spill. Wearing protective clothing and using masks or respirators can minimize their exposure.

“The most important thing is to make sure that the workers are well protected,” Lichtveld says.

There are fewer studies on the long-term health effects of oil spills for communities with lower levels of exposure, like those who live in the communities around the event.

Environmental and Human Health are ‘Inextricable’

This spill and others of its caliber can significantly harm wildlife in the area. In addition to the harms posed to these creatures, this contamination can make its way up the food chain, effecting the seafood supply.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends waiting until seafood has been tested for contaminants before eating food sourced from near the oil spill.

Over time, oil can seep into sources of drinking water like rivers, streams, and groundwater. But researchers are unsure how these chemicals can affect human health through consumption.

“The health of the environment and the health of human beings is inextricably linked,” Lihtveld says. “Even though we may not see immediate impacts on those that live further away, other than the workers, we are worried.”

Non-Chemical Stressors

In addition to the physical health impacts, there are several ways in which living near or interacting with oil spills can impact individual’s psychological, physical, and economic well-being.

The Huntington Beach oil spill is small compared with others in U.S. history, such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill—which released 11 million gallons of crude oil off the shore of Alaska—and the 2010 DWH spill, which polluted the Gulf of Mexico with 134 million gallons of oil.

Still, the spill can cause stress to surrounding communities. For instance, shuttering beaches to public access limits people’s options for recreation and natural space.

A survey of women who experienced the DWH event found an increase in women who postponed their pregnancy or experienced miscarriage or infertility after exposure to the oil spill or feeling its social and economic effects.

“Often, when we refer to human health we think about physical health,” Lichtveld says. “But we've seen that with the oil spill and other disasters that the mental health impacts can last much longer than the physical health effects.”

What This Means For You

If you live in an area that has been affected by an oil spill, check with your local health department about the places to avoid and for direction on protecting yourself from contaminants in the air, water and ground. If you come into contact with crude oil or dispersants, seek medical attention.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. D'Andrea MA, Reddy GK. The Development of Long-Term Adverse Health Effects in Oil Spill Cleanup Workers of the Deepwater Horizon Offshore Drilling Rig Disaster. Front. Public Health. 26 April 2018. Doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2018.00117.

  2. Sandifer PA, Ferguson A, Finucane ML. Human Health and Socioeconomic Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oceanography. Online: June 3, 2021. Doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2021.125

  3. Nance E, King D, Wright B, Bullard R. Ambient air concentrations exceeded health-based standards for fine particulate matter and benzene during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association. Published online 15 Jan 2016. Doi: 10.1080/10962247.2015.1114044.

  4. Harville EW, Shankar A, Zilversmit L. The Gulf oil spill, miscarriage, and infertility: The GROWH Study. Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2018 Jan; 91(1): 47–56. Published online Sept 16, 2017. doi: 10.1007/s00420-017-1257-4.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.