Exclusive: Multiple independent lab tests confirm oil in Gulf shrimp

By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, November 10, 2010 8:09 EDT
google plus icon
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

Experts operating states apart confirm toxic content in not just shrimp, but crab and fish too

The federal government is going out of its way to assure the public that seafood pulled from recently reopened Gulf of Mexico waters is safe to consume, in spite of the largest accidental release of crude oil in America’s history.

However, testing methodologies used by the government to deem areas of water safe for commercial fishing are woefully inadequate and permit high levels of toxic compounds to slip into the human food chain, according to a series of scientific and medical professionals interviewed by Raw Story.

In two separate cases, a toxicologist and a chemist independently confirmed their seafood samples contained unusually high volumes of crude oil and harmful hydrocarbons — and some of this food was allegedly being sent to market.

One test, conducted by a chemist from Mobile, Alabama, employed a rudimentary chemical analysis of shrimp pulled from waters near Louisiana and found “oil and grease” in their digestive tracts.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) tests, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have focused on the animal’s flesh, with samples shelled and cleaned before undergoing examination.

Unfortunately, many Gulf coast residents prepare shrimp whole, tossing the creatures into boiling water shells and all.

“I wouldn’t eat shrimp, fish or crab caught in the Gulf,” said Robert M. Naman, a chemist at ACT Labs in Mobile, Alabama, who conducted the test after being contacted by a New Orleans activist. “The problems people will face, health-wise, are something that people don’t understand.”

Naman also found that the oil was at an unusual high concentration: 193 parts-per-million (PPM).

Though Naman’s test did not provide a complete fingerprint of the chemical spectrum, his results are still “an important finding,” according to Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist at the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, Maine.

“193 parts-per-million of petroleum in a crustacean is very high,” she told Raw Story. “You have to ask, what is the meaning from a human health perspective?

“This is another signal that oil is in the food chain in the Gulf. Oil has been found in subsea plumes, in seafloor sediments, where it will degrade very slowly and can be re-released into the food chain.”

Tainted seafood allegedly headed to market

In another series of tests, Dr. William Sawyer, of the Sanibel, Florida-based Toxicology Consultants & Assessment Specialists, replicated findings of oil in shrimp digestive tracts, but he noted an even higher content of harmful hydrocarbons in the flesh of other edible creatures.

And, Dr. Sawyer said, some of his test samples came from seafood on its way to market, pulled from waters recently classified as safe for commercial fishing activities.

“They did not test the [total petroleum hydrocarbons] (TPH) in their samples,” he said, calling his testing methodologies a much more comprehensive way of examining compounds present in seafood.

“The sensory test employed by the FDA detects compounds that are volatile that have an odor; we’re detecting compounds that are low volatility and are very low odor,” he added. “We found not only petroleum in the digestive tracts [of shrimp], but also in the edible portions of fish.

“We’ve collected shrimp, oysters and finned fish on their way to marketplace — we tested a good number of seafood samples and in 100 percent we found petroleum.”

The FDA says up to 100-PPM of oil and dispersant residue is safe to consume in finned fish, and 500-PPM is allowed for shellfish.

Dr. Sawyer, who has long been a vocal critic of these rules, called the government’s tests “little more than a farce.”

“[The FDA's safety threshold] is borderline absurd,” Naman added. “It’s geared so that shrimpers can go back to work, and that’s great — but if we’re talking about human health and the environment, you need to proceed slowly.”

The FDA ignored multiple requests for comment on this story.

Long-term health effects still unknown

Direct exposure to crude oil can cause a number of health issues for humans, but most of them are short-lived or relative and none of the potential long-term effects are guaranteed.

While the full array of effects are still being studied and debated by the medical community, crude oil does contain benzene, which can cause cancer, along with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are toxic to the brain and nervous system.

The latter has been found in virtually all NOAA samples of Gulf seafood, but very few samples exceeded the maximum allowable levels set by federal safety regulators. Even so, according to Dr. Sawyer, PAH levels detected by the NOAA in Gulf region shrimp were almost always 10 times that of levels found in shrimp farmed inland.

The FDA recently declared that out of 1,735 samples of Gulf seafood tested from June through Sept., only 13 showed levels of residues above its allowable threshold.

It is unclear whether regular consumption of this content of oil would sicken a person, how quickly its symptoms would begin to show, or in what ways they would manifest.

The initial effects of oil toxicity from ingestion include headaches, nausea, fatigue and rapid changes in mental state, according to Dr. Cyrus Rangan, assistant director of the California Poison Control System, who spoke to The Los Angeles Times in June.

Those changes in mental state may actually be the most damaging lasting effect of the BP oil spill, according to Dr. Russell W. H. Kridel, a member of the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health.

Kridel, whose specialty is actually in plastic surgery and ear-nose-and-throat disorders, spoke to Raw Story because the AMA’s council has prepared a comprehensive report on the health effects of the BP oil spill.

“Most of the problems encountered [along the Gulf coast] were more mental health problems than anything else,” he said. “There are respiratory health problems just from burning oil. You can get rashes from skin contact, headaches, vomiting or nausea, which has affected a lot of relief workers.

“There’s a lot of chronic stress and mental health disorders too, and those last longer than the acute, short-term effects. We cannot really tell you the long-term effects, just because of lack of long-term studies.”

He added that while he could not comment on evidence of oil in the digestive tracts of shrimp, some marine life have consumed oil content for centuries due to natural seepage near fault lines thought to account for over 600,000 metric tonnes of oil released across all the world’s oceans every year.

By comparison, scientists with the US Geological Survey and US Department of Energy estimate BP spilled at or near 4.9 million barrels — or approximately 666,400 metric tonnes of crude.

“[Most other oil spills] don’t show any long term effects on the local populations, but the size of previous oil spills are not this large,” he said. “This was the largest oil disaster in US history so I really can’t say what the full effect will be.”

Yet still, “no group has issued a warning or concern that it could affect human health by eating seafood,” Dr. Kridel emphasized.

The AMA has been active in coordinating efforts to track the health effects of BP’s oil spill. A report, recently passed by the group’s house of delegates, committed the AMA to continued monitoring of spill-related health effects.

Risk-factors remain

Despite declaring safety, even the NOAA’s own tests show regular consumption of Gulf seafood will dramatically heighten one’s intake of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

This, combined with a lack of testing for total petroleum hydrocarbons — and questions as to whether samples were in great enough number to declare wide swaths of water safe for fishing — should be enough to convince any skeptical eater to avoid Gulf seafood for the time being.

“I’m not eating fish. I wouldn’t advise anyone to eat fish,” chemist Robert Naman insisted. “[The government is] more worried about livelihoods and tourism, but I’m ultimately more concerned with human health.”

Dr. Sawyer agreed: “I don’t recommend eating Gulf seafood, not with the risk of liver and kidney damage,” he said. “The reason FDA has not made that advisory is because they’ve relied on this sensory test. You may as well send inspectors out to look at the fish and say they look nice. They’re sniffing for something they can’t detect.”

Because of the unknown nature of the threat posed, chemically sensitive populations like women, children, the elderly and people with depressed immune function or existing illness would be especially well advised to exercise caution when choosing seafood.

“Once oil enters, it can damage every organ, every system in the body,” Dr. Shaw concluded. “There is no safe level of exposure to this oil, because it contains carcinogens, mutagens that can damage DNA and cause cancer and other chronic health problems. Many people in the Gulf have been exposed for months — not just workers but residents. There are hundreds of health complaints from local people with symptoms that resemble symptoms of oil exposure.

“It will be years, possibly decades, before we understand the extent and nature of the health effects caused by this spill.”

Photo: Flickr user adactio.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.
  • Anonymous

    Gulf shrimp, gulf shrimp, oily sulphured gulf shrimp, eat them up, yum.

  • Anonymous

    I do not believe anything the feds tell me anymore. They lie, or distort the truth (lie).

    Last week, we are told by federal investigators that Toyota cars are perfectly safe to drive. In spite of evidence.
    We are told don’t believe what you know, believe what we tell you.

    I dont.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Mississippi is a DEADBEAT state …… they went bankrupt in the 1800s and refuse to pay off their debt even to this day……. …MAYBE HE SHOULD BE PRESIDENT SO HE CAN DEFAULT SINCE HE IS AN ADMITTED WHORE, THIEF AND A LIAR!

  • Anonymous

    Yum. Self-oiling prawns.

  • Anonymous

    Burning more carbon is not going to solve the problem.

    You will need to get all americans to eat french fries and fried chicken to supply the fuel for your nightmare.

    Yes indeed let’s make america fatter so you can drive your toy car.

    Capacitors are only energy storage devices and they are quite crappy at it. The rubber band in a balsa airplane is a far better energy storage device. Really we should be driving rubber band wind up cars instead.

  • Anonymous

    Oh you mean it would end up as poison in the atmosphere?

  • Anonymous

    The entire ocean is polluted. It has been many months since the spill. Do you really assert that the oil is still in the gulf? At this point it is distributed evenly all over the entire ocean. It doesn’t even matter where the fish is from anymore.

  • Guest

    Or, you could just not be a lazy ass and ride a bike, walk, or take mass transit.

  • http://www.bobcatarts.com/ Robert Gandy

    I don’t know what the fuss is all about. It’s pre-marinated for your convenience! They should charge more for this stuff. We should be thanking them for seasoning the food chain from within.

  • Anonymous

    If one of the affects of eating the tainted food is Mental Health problems, how would we know it is happening in any of the Gulf Coast States? What time frame would we use to compare to now. I can not remember a time when it was not obvious that living in many southern states makes people nuts

  • Guest

    Along with this information there isn’t any seafood that doesn’t contain mercury or some other toxic substance, in other words man has polluted all of the oceans covering 3/4 of this planet. And, some are arguing that there is too much environmental regulations. People should be out in the streets like the Egyptians about this nonsense, demanding that it stops. But, of course its the environmentalists that are extreme and out of touch with reality. Cheap gas, cheap clean coal energy, yeah, cheap, that is until you figure in the cost of killing the planet.

  • Snertly

    Obviously this needs some long term human trials. Let’s open free seafood buffets in all FDA office building cafeterias.

  • Anonymous

    Wait a minute who needs a doctor to tell them eating food from the toxic stew once known as the Gulf is not safe…or better yet to tell them IT IS safe.
    I just went through Louisiana and, though GOD DAMM I love that food there, I didn’t eat any…wait, wait I take that back, I did stop at a Waffle House near Baton Rouge (yep whadda treat, ain’t got’em here in LA)

  • http://twitter.com/MrEthiopian ed smith

    Questionable reporting ; in the top of the article we have this statement “unclear whether regular consumption of this content of oil would sicken a person” and then further on “Once oil enters, it can damage every organ, every system in the body,” Dr. Shaw concluded. “There is no safe level of exposure to this oil” So what is it RAW should I be staying away from gulf shrimp or dipping my shrimp in a little extra BP oil for flavor?

    Our best course of action should be to bring home some shrimp from you local crappy Red Lobster and have it tested to oil contamination and if you happen to find your meal was tainted with excess BP oil, you openly and very loudly publish your finding around the net, that will set off the shitstorm needed to get our government out of BP back pocket and actually hold them responsible, as they should have been from the start.

  • Anonymous

    Bush stocked government agencies, especially the EPA, with loyalists who gave preference to big business and fucked over anybody who wanted the regulations enforced. Those people are still at work and you are right, Obama lets them stay. I have stopped buying all seafood. None of it can be trusted except for some wild-caught fish from the far north (and at $12 a lb for salmon I can’t afford it anyway).

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    Within a week, two different people I work with were sickened after eating shrimp, whereas I, eating only farm raised shrimp from Thailand I buy at the Super H, have never had a problem. It’s gotten to the point where getting your news from the mainstream media can be hazardous to your health.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    Poetic justice.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    You oil your prawns?

  • http://smugmug.com/other/anoceanapart Maheanuu

    Don’t you love the idiocy that is running rampant in your country today? I for one cannot even begin to understand how you let a entire Sea become the toilet of the Western Hemisphere. How can you sit on your asses when your very lives depend on the cleanliness of the oceans and the air, while the corporations and governments lie to you and are killing you as I write this. I no longer accept the description of “American”. That to me is the same as being called Stupid, Ignorant, Hypocritical, Doltish, Boorish, a Liar, Cheat, Thief and a Charlatan… It isn’t any wonder why you are considered the shit on the heel of humanity….

    Just this old Chief’s 2 cents!

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    The young dolphins are washing up onshore dead in record numbers even as we speak. This is what we get for voting for “change you can believe in” without a clear notion of what the lisping little fairy had in mind.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    Well, you see, you put this magickal stuff called corexit in the water and it turns all the oil into delicious fish food the nice little fishies can eat. And President Obastard has given us change we can believe in. And don’t forget, big brother is watching you, so don’t say anything Secretary Holdup won’t like.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    Try farm raised shrimp from Thailand. They sell it at the Super H, if you have one nearby.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    The stuff I buy at the Korean market says right on the label that it’s farm raised in Thailand, and I’ve never gotten sick from it. The bottom line is, if it comes from the Gulf, they are not going to advertise where it comes from. So you pretty much have to assume, if it’s anonymous, it’s from the Gulf.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    Tilapia isn’t raised. It’s dragged up from miles below the surface.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    That’s what you get for letting beauty queens have opinions.

  • Hassan i Sabbah

    You know, in a rational world, these bastards would be long gone, having been executed for killing a few people rapidly and a lot of people slowly.

  • Anonymous

    not a waste, thanks!

  • Anonymous

    no, he promised a public option. he never promised ‘free health care’ for all and WTF – he never, ever promised democratic socialism…

  • K7KTR

    Was it not just released that the Military bought all this GULF FISH for the Troops?
    Was it not also the VA in 2008 that admitted that 30-40% of ALL Ground Troops in Iraq were Exposed to Depleted Uranium. Then it was released that DU can enter the body via the Sinus cavity and directly into the Brain. But if that was so, Then All these Exposed Soldiers that “Give Blood” are in fact Tainting the Blood Supply since they don’t check for DU in the screening process.
    So in one case the Military will Hide things. Like whats lurking in the Gulf and the other… What took place in that Other GULF..IRAQ.

  • DesertSun59

    As predicted.

    You will see decades of the rise in cancers along the Gulf Coast and in anyone who eats food harvested from the Gulf.

  • Anonymous

    Three things:

    (1) Think of how much money you’ll save in lighter fluid for th’ ol’ bar-b-q, since the fuel for it is “built-in to the food”

    (2) All shrimp cooked on a bar-b-que will be cooked “Cajun style” … whether your like it or not

    (3) The corporations and their officers and directors responsible for this will escape liability, except for a slap on the wrist.

  • Anonymous

    Well . . . NOW he does.

    so does EVERYBODY, dude.

  • Anonymous

    I will never eat seafood from the Gulf.