Researchers will analyze seafood safety after Gulf spill

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in April 2010, it triggered one of the largest oil spills in human history, with an estimated 200 million gallons surging into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. The tremendous environmental disaster was made clear in pictures that ranged from from satellite imagery showing mile-long oil plumes to poignant close-up photographs of dying wildlife. But the full impact of the spill is still unknown.

Penn's Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) is taking part in a national effort to determine the health effects stemming from the disaster. As part of $7.85 million grant from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, two faculty members at the Perelman School of Medicine—CEET Director Trevor Penning and professor of Occupational & Environmental Medicine Edward Emmett—will help lead an investigation into seafood safety and community health in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

fish going to market

Penn researchers plan to examine the toxicity of seafood following the Gulf oil spill.

Penning will co-lead a project focusing on the possible toxicity of seafood. His research will examine polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are found in oil. Local wildlife, especially shellfish, that were exposed to the oil will retain the PAHs in their bodies and pass them on to whatever eats them in a process known as bioaccumulation. When people eat seafood contaminated in this way they could be ingesting a much higher level of PAHs than they would receive from environmental exposure. PAHs take many forms with varying degrees of toxicity, so Penning’s team will determine whether the kinds found in Gulf shellfish could cause cancer or birth defects.

Emmett will co-lead outreach programs on community, disseminating information about potential health risks caused by the spill. He will also co-lead the consortium’s Community-based Participatory Research Project, which will help affected community better understand the local impact of the spill. 

Results of these studies will help shape programs that monitor the health of people exposed to the spill and can also be applied to determine what lingering health effects people might suffer after spills in the future.

Originally published on July 14, 2011