Oil spills like the one happening in the South-East of Mauritius, due to leakage through a breach in the Bulk Carrier Wakashio, are man-made disasters with important and potentially long-term adverse effects on wildlife, marine ecosystems and human health.
It is not only an ecological disaster but since access to the lagoon is now restricted for safety reasons, the implications for the community members that depend on the sea for livelihoods and complementary food sources are very serious.
When it comes to marine life, oil spills are known to affect movement, feeding activities, reproduction and growth. Ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves can be resilient (i.e. bounce back over time) to external shocks. However if they are already disturbed and made fragile by other human activities including the impacts of climate change, they are even more vulnerable to the impacts of oil spills and their ability to recover can be delayed or overall compromised.
But when it comes to the impact of oil spills on human health, there remains major knowledge gaps. A lot remains unknown particularly when it comes to the long-term effects because there is a lack of longitudinal studies. Consuming contaminated marine life such as fish and shellfish is one way that people can be affected. However, several studies also put emphasis on greater health risks not only to residents living near the affected area but also to those that are involved in the cleanup efforts.
The intensity of exposure (for example direct physical contact with oil or exposure to greater concentration of harmful volatile compounds released from oil spills) and the amount of time someone is exposed to a contaminant will determine if and how someone is affected and the severity and persistence of symtoms. Several other factors will also come into play including the type of oil spilled.
Despite multiple factors coming into play, oil spills and the associated impact on air quality remain serious health hazards and can cause the following without proper protection: eye and skin irritation; respiratory problems; dizziness; headaches; nausea; stomache among many other symptoms. Studies also report impacts on mental health including anxiety.
Given that those that help in mitigation and cleaning efforts tend to be the ones that are more affected health-wise alongside nearby residents, it is important that the health risks are taken into account to make informed decision when it comes to helping on the ground or not.
Several organisations and groups are also coming up with other alternative ways to help besides active cleanup, so it is ok to put your safety first and help the way that you can.
Please be well protected beyond boots and gloves.