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What’s Coming Ashore from the Oil Spill

NOTE: This page has information about what light crude oil does when it reaches shore. To learn more, and for information about the health threats of light crude oil off-shore and near the source of the spill, see Interim Guidance for Protecting Deepwater Horizon Response Workers and Volunteers at

What is light crude oil?

Light crude oil is a liquid mix of thousands of different chemicals in oil. Some of it evaporates in hours; the rest can remain for days, weeks, or even longer.

What happens to the oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

When the oil leaked from the bottom of the Gulf, it took 3 to 4 hours to float to the surface. As the oil moved toward the surface it began to break down. Some of the oil dissolved in the water. When the remaining oil reached the surface, it spread on top of the water. The warm water below the oil and the warm air above the oil began to evaporate the oil. The chemicals evaporated into the air while the oil was still many miles from shore. Waves, currents, and wind spread the rest over large areas. It took about 10 days for the oil from Deepwater Horizon to reach the shore. By that time the oil formed sticky tar balls, tar mats or a thick creamy foam called mousse.

The most common way the oil reaching shore can harm you is by contact with the skin. The oil can cause skin irritation and should be washed off with soap and water as soon as you can.

Photo of oil that has formed a foam. Photo of a sticky tar ball. Photo stressing importance of using gloves and wearing clothes that protect your skim when cleaning up oil.

What are the health threats of light crude oil when it reaches the shore?

For most people, brief contact with a small amount of oil will do no harm. The oil may cause a rash, skin irritation or other allergic reactions. It can irritate your skin, so you should wash it off as soon as possible. It can also irritate the eyes.

Skin contact with crude oil over a longer period of time can cause red skin, swelling, and burning skin effects may get worse if the skin is exposed to the sun.

By the time oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill reached shore, most of the vapors evaporate and should already be gone. Some people are bothered by the odors that remain and may feel dizzy, or nauseated as a reaction to the smell. Even if the oil smells bad, it should not cause health problems. However, if you do continue to experience the symptoms after you get away from the smell, or you experience any other health problems you should contact your doctor.

Based on current information, swallowing small amounts of oil like one might experience after swimming in a contaminated area may cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in some people. However such an exposure is generally not likely to cause prolonged health effects after the initial bout is over. Regardless, you should contact your doctor if you have concerns after swimming in areas where local authorities have posted beach advisories or you saw oil or tarballs on the beach. Your doctor can contact the regional poison control center with any questions.

Some cleaning activities, such as pressure-washing, can send small oil droplets into the air, where they can be breathed in or land on the eyes, face, or skin. Anyone near activities like these should wear protective clothing and respirators to protect their skin and lungs. For more information about personal protection when working near an oil spill or when involved in oil spill cleanup, see “Interim Guidance for Protecting Deepwater Horizon Response Workers and Volunteers” and “Respiratory Protection Recommendations”

How can I avoid the health threats of light crude oil?

The best way to avoid health problems from light crude oil is to A-C-T! That stands for Avoid, Clean, Treat.

A: Avoid it!
When possible, avoid coming into contact with oil. If you are involved in clean-up efforts, wear gloves, eye protection, and clothing that cover your arms and legs. In the unlikely event that you breathe in vapors you may experience coughing and irritation of your mouth, nose, throat and lungs. Odors from the decaying oil may cause nausea, but this should stop when you leave the area. Under unusual circumstances that we don’t generally expect, some people with pre-existing conditions may feel short of breath or develop pain tightness or dizziness in the chest. You should consult your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department anytime you experience these kinds of symptoms.

Photo: Oil Spill beach cleanup. Do not let oil touch your skin.  Be sure to wear gloves, boots, and coveralls.
Do not let oil touch your skin. Be sure to wear gloves, boots, and coveralls.

C: Clean it off!
If you get oil on your skin, wash with soap and water, baby oil, petroleum jelly, or a cleaning paste for hands such as those sold at auto parts stores. Do not use solvents, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel, or similar products to clean oil off skin.

If you get oil in your eyes, rinse them with water for 15 minutes.

If you swallow oil, do not try to vomit it, as this may get oil into your lungs. And, if you swallow any oil you should get medical help.

If you inhale oil vapors, or smoke from burning oil, move to an area where the air is more clear. If you have inhaled vapor or smoke and feel short of breath, have chest pain or tightness, or dizziness, get medical help immediately.

T: Treat any symptoms!
Get medical help if you:

  • Develop a rash or have an allergic reaction.
  • Swallow more than a cupful of oil
  • Feel short of breath, have chest pain or tightness, or dizziness

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