NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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When Planning for Disasters, an Effort to Combine Environmental and Human Health Data

Two men clean up oil on a beach.

Workers clean oil from a beach in Louisiana following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. (NOAA)

Immediately following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, there was a high demand for government agencies, including NOAA, to provide public data related to the spill very quickly. Because of the far-reaching effects of the spill on living things, those demands included data on human health as well as the environment and cleanup.

In mid-September of 2014, a group of scientists including social and public health experts, biologists, oceanographers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and data management experts convened in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to discuss ways they could better integrate their respective environmental and health data during disasters. The goal was to figure out how to bring together these usually quite separate types of data and then share them with the public during future disasters, such as oils spills, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

The Deepwater Horizon spill experience has shown government agencies that there are monitoring opportunities which, if taken, could provide valuable data on both the environment and, for example, the workers that are involved in the cleanup. Looking back, it was discovered that at the same time that “vessels of opportunity” were out in the Gulf of Mexico assisting with the spill response and collecting data on environmental conditions, the workers on those vessels could have been identified and monitored for future health conditions, providing pertinent data to health agencies.

A lot of environmental response data already are contained in NOAA’s online mapping tool, the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®), such as the oil’s location on the water surface and on beaches throughout the Deepwater Horizon spill, chemicals found in sediment and animal tissue samples, and areas of dispersant use. ERMA also pulls together in a centralized format and displays Environmental Sensitivity Index data, which include vulnerable shoreline, biological, and human use resources present in coastal areas; ship locations; weather; and ocean currents. Study plans developed to assess the environmental impacts of the spill for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the resulting data collected can be found at www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov/oil-spill/gulf-spill-data.

Screen shot of ERMA mapping program showing Gulf of Mexico with Deepwater Horizon oil spill data.

ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response contains a wide array of publicly available data related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, you can see cumulative levels of oiling on the ocean surface throughout the spill, shorelines affected, and the location of the damaged wellhead. (NOAA)

Health agencies, on the other hand, are interested in data on people’s exposure to oil and dispersants, effects of in situ burning on air quality, and heat stress in regard to worker health. They need information on both long-term and short-term health risks so that they can determine if impacted areas are safe for the communities. Ideally, data such as what are found in ERMA could be imported into health agencies’ data management systems which contain human impact data, creating a more complete picture.

Putting out the combined information to the public quickly and transparently will promote a more accurate representation of a disaster’s aftermath and associated risks to both people and environment.

Funded by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center and facilitated by the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center, this workshop sparked ideas for better and more efficient collaboration between agencies dealing with environmental and human health data. By setting up integrated systems now, we will be better prepared to respond to and learn from man-made and natural disasters in the future. As a result of this workshop, participants formed an ongoing working group to move some of the best practices forward. More information can be found at crrc.unh.edu/workshops/EDDM.

Dr. Amy Merten, of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division co-authored this blog.


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Study Reveals D.C. Community near Anacostia River Are Eating and Sharing Contaminated Fish

A family fishes on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C.

A family fishes on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River. According to a 2012 report, 74 percent of those fishing this river are eating or sharing fish possibly contaminated by cancer-causing chemical pollutants. Credit: Rebecca Harlan/All rights reserved.

An extensive study partly funded by NOAA has found that nearly half of the people living near Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River are unaware of the dangers of eating its fish. The results are prompting a reexamination of how to communicate these important public health risks to a diverse, multilingual, and urban community.

The report uncovered further evidence that many local fishermen—who were disproportionately African American, Latino, or Asian—are catching, eating, and sharing potentially contaminated fish with family, friends, and others, greatly expanding the possible long-term health risks to the public. The study estimated some 17,000 people living near the Anacostia could be eating these polluted fish.

“Our research confirmed that contaminated fish are, indeed, being shared in the community,” said Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, the company that did the survey. “What we could not have known, prior to embarking upon this effort, is the extent to which this sharing happens and the complex set of factors that drive it.”

Sign with a clean fish warning about possible pollutants inside.

When shown this ad during interviews with Anacostia River fishermen, one respondent answered, “This (ad) makes you just want to grill it!” This demonstrated “how difficult it is to break through to this audience with a message about unseen contaminants,” such as PCBs. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

A Dirty History

The Anacostia River, which runs through Maryland and the District of Columbia, has suffered from decades of pollution, mainly from runoff and hazardous waste sites. NOAA has been partnering to evaluate, clean up, and restore the Anacostia watershed since the late 1990s.

One of the most notable chemical pollutants in the river is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have immune, reproductive, endocrine, and neurological effects, and may cause cancer and affect children’s cognitive development. This and other chemicals build up in the river bottom, where they make their way up the food chain and become stored in the tissues of fish, posing a health threat if people consume them.

Even though the District of Columbia and Maryland have been issuing warnings about eating Anacostia River fish for more than twenty years, the majority of fishermen and community members surveyed were not aware of these advisories. While both governments tell the public not to eat any channel catfish or carp, this report exposed that these are some of the most commonly caught fish in the river.

Furthermore, over half the fishermen reported that “knowing about such a health advisory” would not change whether or how they ate their catch. Researchers found at least two misunderstandings playing into this. One was the fishermen’s mistaken belief that they would be able to see contamination on the outside of the fish. Another was their assumption that getting “sick” from the fish would be immediate, in the form of food poisoning, instead of a future risk of cancer.

Hungry Now or Sick Later?

A particularly surprising result from the study was that fishermen along the Anacostia River often are approached by people who ask them to share fish because they do not have enough food.

Warning sign reading: Danger: Eating fish from this river may cause cancer.

Researchers found that this kind of direct messaging got the attention of those fishing on the Anacostia River. But simply improving warning signs may not be enough to address the root of the problem. (Addressing the Risk 2012 report)

“They will ride around in their cars and look to see if we’re catching fish and ride up and ask, ‘Have you caught anything today? Are you going to keep them?'” said one Anacostia fisherman interviewed during the study about sharing his catch with those lacking food.

The community’s apparent lack of access to enough affordable food complicates the task of merely delivering a better message about health risks.

“The answer to this problem will be far more complex than simply telling anglers not to share their catch,” said Raabe. “How can you tell someone who is hungry today not to eat fish that may pose future health risks?”

With almost three-quarters of fishermen eating or sharing the fish they catch, those involved in the study are looking at a broad range of possible fixes to this complex problem:

  • Improving health-risk messages to those most affected.
  • Creating more and better opportunities for education, such as fishing tournaments.
  • Introducing healthier alternative protein options to the community, through aquaponics (“a farming technique that grows plants and fish in a recirculating environment”) and local fish subscription services (akin to community supported agriculture programs).
  • Increasing the amount of city food gardens and farmers markets in the area.

Along with NOAA, the following organizations were involved in this study: Anacostia Watershed Society, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Anacostia Riverkeeper, District Government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

You can download the complete report at www.anacostiaws.org/fishing, read about ways to reduce exposure to chemical contaminants when eating fish, and learn about efforts to cleanup and restore the Anacostia.


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What Are Tarballs?

Tarball close up.

Close up of a tarball on Dauphin Island, Alabama, from May 2010. Credit: NOAA.

During the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill last summer, “tarballs” began washing up both on Gulf shores and into the language of average Americans. But what are tarballs? Where do they come from? Are they hazardous to people’s health?

Here are tarballs, demystified:

Q. What are tarballs?

A. Tarballs are small, dark-colored pieces of oil that sometimes appear on beaches and shorelines. The weathering processes of wind and waves physically and chemically change spilled oil, evaporating the lighter components of oil and leaving the denser ones behind. This heavier oil mixes with water and forms a thick emulsion (think mayonnaise), which continues to be stretched and torn into smaller patches and pieces. These much thicker and stickier pieces of oil are tarballs.

Q. What do they look like?

A. Some tarballs can be as large as pancakes, but most are about the size of a coin. Eventually, tarballs resemble the consistency of a toasted marshmallow: hard and crusty on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.

Q. Where do they come from?

A. Tarballs originate from a variety of sources, including accidental oil spills, vessel operations, illegal discharges, and, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California, natural oil seeps. Tarballs are very persistent in the marine environment and can travel hundreds of miles.

Q. Are tarballs hazardous to people’s health?

A. While limited exposure to tarballs does not pose a serious health threat, we still recommend staying away from them. Some people who are especially sensitive to chemicals may have an allergic reaction or develop rashes even from brief contact with oil.

If contact occurs, wash the area with soap and water, baby oil, or a widely used, safe cleaning compound such as the cleaning paste sold at auto parts stores.

Q. What should I do if I find a tarball?

A. New tarballs, especially an unusual number of them, appearing on a beach may indicate an oil spill. To report a release or spill, contact the federal government’s centralized reporting center, the National Response Center (NRC), at 1-800-424-8802 (available 24 hours a day).

Find out more about tarballs from this NOAA fact sheet [PDF, leaves this blog] or by watching Oil Spill 101: Tarballs | Video from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.