“Overall, air emissions in the community continue to be below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population,” Arkansas regulators wrote on a state-operated website that tracks Mayflower’s air monitoring data.
Despite these reassurances, residents have suffered headaches, nausea and vomiting—classic symptoms of short-term exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil.
“Figuring out how to protect people after a disaster like this is very hard,” said Aaron Bernstein, a public health expert and associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “People living near the spill early on could definitely have gotten sick” from the concentrations present in the air.
Much of the attention is focused on airborne levels of benzene, a known carcinogen that is toxic at very low doses. But crude oil also contains hundreds of other chemicals, and for some of these compounds, little is known about their effects on human health.