Is Swimming in the Gulf Oil Spill Area Safe?

July 14, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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Swimming in water contaminated with chemicals from the oil spill can cause health issues. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In response to the ongoing oil catastrophe, two Florida counties are taking precautionary measures encouraging residents to stay out of the water.

The Escambia County health department issued a health advisory prohibiting swimming at all the county's beaches including Pensacola, Perdido Key and some of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In addition, the Okaloosa county beaches are also closed to swimming.

"Swimming in oily water should pose minimal concern if washed off thoroughly immediately after," said Mark Ryan of the Louisiana Poison Control Center. "Of course, we would not recommend swimming in the water that you know has oil in it."

Swimmers at the Escambia County beaches are warned to swim at their own risk. Ryan explained that swimming in oily water can cause skin irritation but that is not the chief concern.

"The greatest potential hazard is swallowing water with oil in it," he said. "While a rare occurrence it is possible that swallowing oil can result in chemical pneumonia. Symptoms would be coughing and breathing becoming progressively more difficult. Medical attention would be required."

The Escambia County beaches also set up oil impact advisory signs warning beach-goers, but the beaches will remain closed until officials determine that they are completely safe.

Read below for tips on protecting your health from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

Air Quality:

-- Smell: People may be able to smell oil from the spill from shore. Exposure to low levels of these chemicals may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin. People with asthma or other lung diseases may be more sensitive than others.

-- Burning Oil: When responders burn some of the oil, some "Particulate Matter" (PM) may reach the shore. PM may pose a greater risk for people who have a chronic condition such as asthma or heart disease.

Food:

-- The Food and Drug Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are monitoring the oil spill and its potential impact on the safety of seafood harvested from the area. Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in stores at this time.

Water:

-- Drinking water and household water are not expected to be affected by the spill.

-- Swimming in water contaminated with chemicals from the oil spill could cause health issues.

Dispersants:

-- Oil spill dispersants break an oil slick into small drops. For most people, brief contact with a small amount of oil spill dispersants will do no harm. Longer contact can cause a rash and dry skin and can irritate the eyes. Breathing or swallowing dispersants can also cause health problems.

Related Content can be found at:

CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), Examiner and GovMonitor

Related to the Story:

Health Concerns Mounting as Oil Spill Continues

Weather Should Not Hamper Testing on Well Cap

What's the Probability the Gulf Oil Spill Will Impact Your Coastal Spot?

Beaches May Be Getting Gulf Coast Tourism

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