The Gulf Oil Spill's Effects on Reproduction

By Sam Lupica The Gulf oil spill had the potential to affect reproduction of plants, animals and humans for an indefinite period.
The BP, or Deepwater Horizon, oil spill of April 2010 released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and eventually covered hundreds of miles of coastline. The effects of the oil contamination on the reproduction of plants, animals and humans are not well documented, as of May 2011, as the long-term effects of this disaster will take several more years to fully comprehend. However, earlier studies on the effects of petroleum exposure and other contaminants contained in crude oil can offer insight to the possible consequences.

1. Mutations in DNA and Pregnancy

Exposure to hydrocarbon -- a chief component of petroleum -- is known to cause mutations in DNA; however, these correlations to human reproduction remain unclear. Very few studies have investigated the relationship between petroleum exposure and the outcomes of pregnancy. The October 2010 issue of "Fertility and Sterility" called for an assessment of the risk of spontaneous abortions -- or miscarriages -- in women exposed to petroleum. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should lend itself to a well-designed inquiry of this relationship with women from the evacuated areas along the affected coast.

Spontaneous Abortions

A report in the January 1998 issue of "Occupational and Environmental Medicine" assessed the association between exposure to petrochemicals and the risk of spontaneous abortions. The authors interviewed almost 3,000 women with occupational exposure to petrochemicals during their first trimester of pregnancy. Researchers found that the risk of spontaneous abortion increased by almost 9 percent for those exposed, contrasted with a control group. The authors concluded that exposure to benzene, gasoline and hydrogen sulfide were all linked to the incidence of spontaneous abortion.

Exposure to Petrochemicals and Miscarriages

A study appearing in the June 1988 issue of the "International Journal of Epidemiology" investigated the effects of prolonged exposure to emissions of petrochemicals. Researchers interviewed women living near petrochemical facilities and who were pregnant at any time from 1963 until 1981. The study found that there was almost a 2 percent increase for miscarriages in the exposed areas. The study concluded, however, that the results do not imply that women with casual exposure to petrochemicals had an increased risk of miscarriage.

Reproduction of Mussels

In November 2002, a Prestige oil spill dumped approximately 20 million gallons of crude oil, which washed up on thousands of miles of coast along Portugal, Spain and France. A report published in the January 2011 issue of the "Journal of Environmental Monitoring" investigated the long-term effects of this oil spill on the reproductive health of wild mussels. The authors reported that in 2003, there was a high prevalence of deformed eggs being produced by female mussels and by 2004, the eggs continued to be smaller than controls from unpolluted waters. The study concluded that by April 2004, the mussel population began a recovery trend.

The Effects of the Oil Spill on Shrimpers

Shrimpers may have to travel farther to reach unaffected areas of ocean and marine life.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in 2010, many wondered what impact this would have on local shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico. Over 190 million gallons of oil spilled from the broken BP-operated oil rig, killing ocean plant life and wildlife, including fish, birds and shrimp. Shrimping is a major business in the Gulf. According to Fox News, Louisiana shrimpers caught 89 million pounds of shrimp in 2008, just ahead of Texas, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. The oil spill that began in April 2010 --- the beginning of shrimping season --- heavily affected shrimpers in the following months. While small portions of the Gulf were reopened for fishing in August 2010, the problems persist through 2011.

1. Halted Fishing

Oil poured from the Deepwater Horizon well for months until BP contained the problem. During that time period, the oil killed sea life, such as shrimp, and polluted the ocean water. Shrimpers could no longer fish off their boats, since the shrimp had either already died or, coated in oil, were no longer edible. This suspended the shrimping season, stopping most shrimpers from combing the waters for viable shrimp.

Alternative Locations

As a result of halted fishing, shrimpers looked to new areas for shrimp. NewsPress states that Florida shrimpers who normally travel north for the shrimping season planned to travel south for the first time instead in order to find pockets of ocean unaffected by the oil spill. Shrimping in waters with unfamiliar water

currents and tide patterns can be dangerous. It also increases competition for what few shrimp may be of value.

Decreased Revenue

Unable to shrimp after the spill, shrimpers lacked revenue-earning product and found themselves in a difficult financial bind. Fishing equipment, such as boats, nets, line and safety gear, along with the salaries of a shrimping team on board, are expensive. Without their previous regular annual revenue from successful shrimping seasons, some shrimpers and shrimping companies have not been able to stay in business. A number of shrimpers likely face bankruptcy, according to the Oil Spill Task Force. Southern Shrimp Alliance Executive Director Jon Williams sums it up: "It could take one year, two years or 40 years before the Gulf shrimp population is fully restored."

Loss to Competitors

While U.S. shrimpers lost out on millions of pounds of oil-covered shrimp that would have otherwise been valuable, their competition may have reaped the benefits. Other regions of the world, such as England, Australia, Japan and Korea, have access to shrimp in their waters. Shrimpers and shrimping companies in these parts of the globe saw the value of their shrimp go up when U.S. restaurants and food companies, which normally bought shrimp from Gulf shrimpers, turned to international suppliers for the product.

Oil Spills & Their Effects on Marine Animals

Ingesting oil-tainted food can lead to the damage of internal organs like the liver.
Oil spills have various effects on different species of marine animals. These effects can be classified as physical and chemical. The physical effects of oil spills on marine creatures result from the physical nature of the oil, while the chemical effects are due to the toxic components of the oil.

1. Hypothermia

When there is an oil spill, the oil tends to float on top of the water. This surface oil affects marine animals like birds and seals by coating their bodies with the viscous, sticky substance. Spilt oil only gets stickier over time due to weathering, causing the oil to adhere to the bodies of marine animals even more. A coating of oil on marine birds like seagulls and other marine creatures like seals can lead to hypothermia by destroying or reducing the insulation and waterproofing qualities of their feathers and fur, respectively. This affects seal pups more than adult seals because seal pups have a wooly fur, known as lanugo, which they need for insulation until they can develop blubber. When the lanugo is coated with oil, the pups are more vulnerable to hypothermia.


Marine mammals quickly lose weight when they cannot feed as a result of the contamination of their habitats by oil. Marine birds become dehydrated as they reject the foul-tasting water and starve as they limit their diving and swimming to find food; they also become easy prey because they are unable to fly with their matted feathers. Dugongs are affected as they find it difficult to eat with oil

clinging to the sensory hair around their mouths. When oil sticks to the bodies of seal pups and their mothers, it causes confusion because seal pups and their mothers rely on their sense of smell to identify each other. The oil disguises the smell of the seals, leading to rejection and abandonment of seal pups by their mothers and the starvation of seal pups.


Oil spills can lead to the drowning of fur seal pups as a result of their flippers sticking to their bodies. Birds are also vulnerable to drowning because the oil on their feathers has some weight and their sticky feathers are unable to trap enough air to keep them buoyant.

Toxic Effects

Oil spills damage the bodies of marine animals; for instance, oil damages the eyes of marine turtles by causing conjunctivitis, ulcers and even blindness. It also causes irritation of the skin and nasal cavities and damage to red blood cells. Ingesting oil-tainted food damages or suppresses the immune system of marine animals, leading to bacterial or fungal infections. Such tainted food could be crustaceans, mollusks, algae or fish. Oil also affects the reproductive habits of marine animals by reducing the number of eggs and changing the characteristics of the eggs, such as the thickness of the eggshells.

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