September 27, 2006

Microbiologist warns oil spill workers of long-term effects

Panay News, Sept. 27, 2006

GUIMARAS – Residents cleaning up shores stained with bunker oil are in great peril and may not be aware of the slow but long-term fatal effect of their exposure to toxic fumes, a microbiologist warned.

Many residents of oil spill-affected villages here are availing themselves of Petron Corp.’s “cash for work” scheme.

According to Mary Aidine Galvan, a microbiologist associated with the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc., inhaling vapors from bunker oil-stained shores is more dangerous than physical contact of the raw bunker fuel. It may result to hypoxia or anoxia, she said.

Hypoxia is a condition wherein there is decreased oxygen supply to the brain even though there is adequate blood flow.

Galvan said hypoxia is characterized by inattentiveness, poor judgment, memory loss, and a decrease in motor coordination.

Brain cells are extremely sensitive to oxygen deprivation and can begin to die within five minutes after oxygen supply has been cut off. When hypoxia lasts for longer periods of time, it can cause coma, seizures, and even brain death, Galvan revealed.

On the other hand, cerebral anoxia is the lack of oxygen to the brain. If severe, Galvan said it can cause irreversible brain damage.

Less severe cases can cause sensory distortions and hallucinations. Some researchers have cited cerebral anoxia as the cause of near-death experiences.

“Susceptible folks are the elderly, asthmatic, and those with respiratory ailments,” Galvan said.

The Petron-chartered Solar 1 tanker sank on August 11 in the Guimaras Strait. It contained over two million liters of bunker fuel.

“The tar balls (the withered residue compound of the bunker fuel) are recalcitrants. They stay longer in the environment and are more toxic than freshly spilled oil,” Galvan told Panay News.

Galvan, also a member of the Society of Conservation Biology of the USA, Marine Section, said tar balls, asphaltine and resins, which are persistently occurring, are hard to degrade residues. These are caused by wave action bringing (bunker fuel oil) sediments onshore covered by sand, leaving an anaerobic condition.

“Anaerobic condition produces hydrogen sulfide and noxious gasses,” Galvan explained.

Microbes can convert these noxious gasses such as methane, ethanol and alcohol and subsequently produce carbon dioxide. But Galvan said gases emitted from the shores may trigger (above normal level of) methane gas to bind with the body’s hemoglobin.

Coupled with the oxygen-binding capacity of the blood, this may result to hypoxia and anoxia.


Galvan said bioremediation could have been applied when the bunker fuel oil was still fresh onshore.

“Bioremediation should be used to deal with withered residues like tar balls, asphaltine and resins,” she said.

At present, the microbiologist said, there is no technology available in the country on how to deal with the residues.

“Chemical dispersing is all that they recommend,” she lamented.

If tar balls are left untreated, it will harden and can make things worse, she warned.

Though the sea has indigenous hydrocarbon degraders (IHD) that could neutralize or breakdown oil, Galvan said these are not enough to battle the oil spill due to the viscosity of the bunker fuel.

Petron’s bunker fuel oil is a highly viscous material, Galvan said.


As of yesterday, the Department of Health (DOH) has reported three deaths linked to the oil spill. Just recently, a “cash for work” worker died.

It is believed that his death was caused by too much exposure to — and inhalation of — toxic fumes.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ernesto Belonio of Brgy. San Antonio, Nueva Valencia town died Friday last week. But DOH-6 Regional Director Lydia Depra-Ramos said yesterday that the results of their investigation is not yet available.

In yesterday’s press conference of the Task Force Guimaras, it was learned that residents diagnosed with signs and symptoms related to the oil spill already swelled to 1,855 persons – 1,776 in Guimaras and 79 in Iloilo province.

DOH said a total of 32 consultations were conducted and 10 were admitted to hospitals.

Ramos said further that they have not yet requested for air examination since they are still “waiting for the improvement of the coastal cleanup operations” being conducted by Petron.

“We already moved the residents to higher grounds,” she said. DOH ordered the evacuation of residents living within 100-meter radius of the shores due to the above normal levels of toxic fumes.


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