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Gulf Oil Spill 2010: Food/Air Quality/Water Information for Coastal Residents


During a disaster, people may worry that the food they eat could be contaminated. To make sure the food supply is protected, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are monitoring the oil spill and its potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from the area. CDC is in constant communication with these agencies.

Should a health concern arise, CDC will work quickly with other federal and state agencies to make sure the public is informed.

Air Quality

State and federal agencies are working together to answer questions about how the oil spill and burning oil may affect air quality. ATSDR and CDC are helping U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make sure that EPA’s air sampling plans are useful for public health protection.


Gas or Diesel Smell

People may be able to smell the oil spill from the shore.  The odor is similar to what you can smell at a gas station.  It comes from “Volatile Organic Compounds” (VOCs) in the oil.  VOCs are also in the gas you burn in your car every day and can include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and naphthalene.

Exposure to low levels of VOCs from the oil spill may cause short-term symptoms such as upset stomach, headache, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat in people sensitive to smells.  Symptoms will depend on many things, including how much you breathe and how long you breathe it. It is possible that people with asthma or other lung diseases may be more sensitive to the effects of breathing VOCs.  These effects should go away when levels of VOCs go down or when you leave the area.

If the VOC smell is causing you symptoms like those described above, you should consider staying indoors to limit your exposure and closing your windows and doors. If you have an air conditioner, you should set it to a recirculation mode. If symptoms continue, you should consult your healthcare provider.

Rotten Egg Smell

You also might smell a “rotten egg” odor, which could be from hydrogen sulfide.  Hydrogen sulfide (H2S in the EPA’s data tables) and other sulfide compounds are often found with crude oil, but also come from marshes and sewage treatment plants.  Hydrogen sulfide is among the more harmful chemicals that can be found in oil.  However, based on information about oil from similar wells in this area, we expect the levels of sulfide compounds from this spill to be low. EPA has found some hydrogen sulfide in its oil spill air tests, but the hydrogen sulfide has been found in air that comes from multiple directions and sources at different times, rather than from the direction of the oil spill. 

This information is based on what we know at this time.  EPA will continue to test for VOCs and sulfide compounds in the air on the Gulf Coast.  ATSDR and CDC will continue to review EPA’s findings and will update this information and our health recommendations if the situation changes. 

Additional information regarding smells associated with the BP oil spill can be found on the EPA website (

Burning oil

If responders burn some of the oil, some “Particulate Matter” (PM) may reach the shore. PM is a mix of very small particles and liquid droplets found in the air. It can come from many different sources such as diesel exhaust, smoke from fuel-burning power plants, fires, and unpaved roads. PM varies in size and the smallest PM can get deep into your lungs.

PM may not reach the shore if the fires are far away. When crews burn the spilled oil they carefully watch the weather, wind, and water conditions and stop the burn right away if there is any problem.

ATSDR and CDC are helping EPA to make sure that EPA’s air sampling plans are useful for public health protection.

The EPA is monitoring air quality in the region. The maps and charts at show current ozone and fine particulate Air Quality Index values at air quality monitors located along the Gulf coast. These maps and charts will be updated hourly to show the most recent conditions.

If you smell or see smoke, or know that fires are nearby, you can take the following extra steps to protect yourself and your family:

  • Leave the area if you are at greater risk from breathing smoke. If you have a chronic respiratory condition such as asthma or cardiovascular disease, you may be at greater risk.
  • Limit your exposure to smoke: stay inside and use your air conditioner set to a recirculation mode. If you do not have an air conditioner you may wish to leave the area until the smoke is completely gone.
  • Avoid activities that put extra demands on your lungs and heart. These include exercising or physical chores, both outdoors and indoors.
  • Dust masks, bandanas, or other cloths (even if wet) will not protect you from smoke.


Based on current findings, drinking water supplies are not expected to be affected by the spill. CDC is working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor the oil spill’s effects on drinking water. If, in the future, results from monitoring activities indicate that chemicals from the oil have entered the drinking water supply, CDC will work with EPA to quickly inform the public.

CDC is communicating closely with the UEPA and the states as they collect water samples along affected coastlines to determine potential risks to public health and the environment. For now, CDC recommends that people follow local and state public health guidelines and warnings related to the use of beaches and coastal water for recreational activities and fishing.

CDC and ATSDR are reviewing plans for environmental sampling to ensure that public health concerns are addressed.

For more information about EPA’s sampling plan, see

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