Dr. Joseph Prospero

Dr. Joseph Prospero.

COLLEGEVILLE PA – Dangers posed by the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during the past two months have already taken a toll on marine life, especially on the coastal ecosystems, but an expert on the subject who is an Ursinus College alumni expects air quality and human health are being affected too.

Dr. Joseph Prospero, a 1956 Ursinus graduate, is now professor emeritus at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. An atmospheric chemist, he reports that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the oil mass may cause some short-term unpleasant side in coastal area residents. They include headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, or nausea.

Some symptoms have already been seen among workers responsible for helping BP with the spill clean-up. Area residents could be affected as well, Prospero said. The good news is that Mother Nature herself is solving some of the man-made problems.

As of June 14 (2010), he said, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed air quality levels for ozone and particulates are normal on the Gulf coastline for this time of year. In part, Prospero noted, that’s because the oil mass on the ocean’s surface is being heated by the sun, causing its VOCs to rapidly evaporate. Consequently, most of the VOCs are emitted to the atmosphere relatively close to the spill site, away from most residents.

In addition, as winds transport these emissions to coastal regions, atmospheric processes will dilute VOC concentrations by mixing the polluted air with clean air.

Still, Prospero added, some compounds in VOCs – benzene, for example, which makes up about 1 percent of the oil mass – could be “potentially harmful.” It’s no surprise then, according to Prospero, that the EPA is continuing to actively monitor for VOCs and its compounds in the region.

“Humans can smell some of these chemicals at levels well below those that would cause short-term health problems, Prospero said. However, the EPA reports that levels appear to be too low to be a threat to human health.

Photo from Ursinus College

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