Whether it’s safe for homeowners to attempt their own oil-spill cleanup depends on who you ask. The Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Center advises against it as does Robert Nesbit, program manager of the OSHA Training Institute Education Center at the University of South Florida. He says the oil is toxic, plain and simple.
But some experts say it’s OK to sop up oil that’s washed ashore on your property from the Gulf oil spill. One of them is Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, P.E., who studies oil-spill cleanup in his role as head of the CIGMAT Center at the University of Houston.
Here’s how to approach oil-spill cleanup safely, if you feel it’s worth the risk.
1. Understand the health risks when coming in contact with oil.
Oil that washes ashore, air pollution from the oil, and oil dispersants can all be harmful to humans, says Nesbit.
Oil-spill cleanup poses two immediate health risks for people:
- Skin irritations from coming in contact with oil.
Remedy: If you get oil on your skin, wash it off with soap and water.
- Breathing problems and nausea from inhaling oil fumes.
Remedy: Stay indoors if winds are bringing oil fumes to shore.
If you or someone in your family becomes ill, see your doctor or county health department, or call the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222. Young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems should steer clear of the oil.
There may also be longer-term risks from cancer-causing agents such as volatile organic compounds, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Some people are worried about potential negative health effects of the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil spill. In late June, the EPA issued a report saying that none of the eight dispersants used in the Gulf is a risk to cleanup workers.
2. Figure out what type of oil you’ve got.
Oil reaching land from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is usually in one of three forms:
- Oil sheen: A very thin layer of oil floating on the surface of the water. How to get rid of it: Skim it with absorbent material such as paper towel, straw, hair, or peat moss. Or you can just scoop the oil from the surface with a bucket.
- Tar balls: Weathered globs of oil, which may be mixed with plants or debris. Most of the volatile compounds have been washed out, says Dr. Philip Shenefelt, associate professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida School of Medicine. How to get rid of it: Pick up tar balls and surrounding sand or dirt with a wide shovel or with a gloved hand. Rubber, vinyl, or cotton gloves will do. It’s easier at low tide.
- Oil patches: Thicker, floating oil mixed with plants and sediment. The oil’s color makes many patches look like floating red algae. How to get rid of it: Depending on their size, skim patches off the surface with a pool skimmer or shovel.
The terrain around your property also affects how you should approach cleanup. For example, you may need to use detergent and a pressure washer to remove oil from large rocks along the shoreline.
3. Suit up right for oil-spill cleanup.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration doesn’t classify oil from the spill as a hazardous chemical, so it isn’t requiring much in the way of special equipment for workers cleaning oil from beaches. You need some basic protection for oil spill cleanup:
- Wear rubberized, water-resistant gloves and boots.
- Cover your clothes with a rubber rain slicker or water-resistant coveralls. Oil can soak into most types of clothing and increase skin irritation. (Be mindful of overheating, since rubber doesn’t breathe.)
- Wear protective safety glasses.
- Wear a face shield if you have asthma or breathing problems. You won’t need a respirator.
4. Dispose of any oil you collect properly.
Finally, remember that oil-soaked waste can’t just be put in the trash. At present, oil waste is being taken to designated landfills. If you have oil-spill waste to get rid of, Vipulanandan suggests, contact a local center that accepts motor oil for disposal instructions.