A new study of fishermen involved in cleaning up an oil spill along the Spanish coast sheds light on the health problems that could be facing oil spill cleanup workers in the Gulf.

Conducted by Spanish researchers and published late last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the study assessed the health of people involved in the cleanup following the 2002 spill from the Prestige oil tanker off the coast of northwestern Spain -- that country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

The researchers looked at respiratory effects and chromosomal damage in Spanish cleanup workers (pictured above) two years after their exposure. They found that participation in the cleanup was associated with persistent respiratory symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath, evidence of airway injury, and chromosomal abnormalities in white blood cells that seemed to increase with intensity of exposure.

"This type of chromosomal damage has been associated with increased cancer risk and has been reported previously in other workers exposed to benzene, which is a constituent of oil," noted Gina Solomon, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in her analysis of the Spanish study.

Earlier research on the health impacts of people involved in the Prestige cleanup also found problems including an increased risk of respiratory symptoms, oxidative stress and chromosomal damage.

It should be noted that there are significant differences between the Spanish spill and the Gulf disaster. For one thing, the Gulf spill was about 10 times larger than the Spanish spill and went on for months. In addition, the response to the BP spill relied heavily on the use of petroleum-based dispersants, which were not deployed as intensively in the Prestige spill, and on burning of surface oil, which did not happen in the Spanish case. And the Gulf spill involved light crude oil while the Spanish spill involve heavy fuel oil, which have the same constituents but in different proportions.

"The bottom line is that we can't assume that all the findings of [the Spanish] study will necessarily apply to workers in the Gulf, but the study certainly raises serious concern about long term respiratory and cancer risks to oil spill clean-up workers, and underscores the need to protect workers, provide them with access to medical care, and follow-up their health status in the future," Solomon wrote.

The findings come amid growing evidence that pollution from the BP spill has contaminated people's bodies. Blood tests conducted on Gulf Coast residents who experienced health problems in the wake of the disaster found a "stew of toxic chemicals directly associated with oil and gas production and the chemical dispersant Corexit, including ethylbenzene, xylene and high levels of hexane, a hydrocarbon chiefly obtained by the refining of crude oil," according to a recent report by the Locust Fork News-Journal, an independent news website based in Alabama.

The latest report [pdf] on health impacts from the BP disaster released by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, which tallied data through Sept. 4, found that there have been 399 reports of health complaints in that state believed to be related to exposure to pollutants from the spill, with 313 of them involving workers and 86 involving the general population. The most frequently reported symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, weakness/fatigue and upper respiratory irritation.

(Photo of Prestige oil cleanup workers on the Spanish coast by Viajero via Wikimedia Commons.)