Can oil spills cause heart disease?


New research in the February 14 issue of Science could greatly reduce the amount of oil that is considered "safe" in water.

Researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Stanford University were looking at the long term effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill on fish. Specifically what they wanted to know was why embryonic fish tended to die in the womb.

They found that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, from oil could disrupt the hearts natural rhythm. When a heart beats it requires all of the cells in the heart to contract rhythmically. The rhythm is timed by signals traveling through ion channels in the cell membrane. PAHs can contaminate the ion channels, leading to a disruption in the signals that maintain the hearts rhythm.

While this particular study was done on fish, it could have much broader implications. Hearts function in largely the same way across species. The heart problems found in fish following the Deepwater Horizon spill could have implications for a wide range of other animals, including people. That, in turn, could have huge implications for the oil industry.

It is not only large deep sea spills that put oil into the water. Smaller spills, on land, can put oil into lakes, streams and groundwater. Shipping and boating can leave oil in water and pollute lakes and oceans, oil drilling such as that in the Alberta tar sands can leave substantial oil residue in the groundwater, even cars deposit small amounts of oil onto roads which eventually finds its way into water systems.

In other words, fossil fuels could be even more dangerous than we though.
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