WWLTV: New report: air pollution during BP oil spill equaled 'large city's' pollution

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Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News

NEW ORLEANS -- A new government report on the BP oil spill is painting a clearer picture of what happened to the air quality in the days after the spill.

The report found the amount of air pollution generated by the spill was equal to that found in a large city.

At the height of the oil spill disaster, millions of gallons of oil seeped into the Gulf of Mexico, as crews scrambled to contain it.

One method included burning the oil as it reached the surface, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Winds carried that burning smell all the way to the coast and beyond.

"People in New Orleans had respiratory problems because of that burning," said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

A team of researchers, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found it wasn't just the burning of the oil that affected air quality. Their new report finds that over the course of the spill, as oil evaporated, it put 10 times more organic particles into the air than the burning did.

"It was like having a large city's worth of pollution appear out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico," said Daniel Murphy, a NOAA scientist and co-author of the report.

The report focused on two things that can affect the lungs: ozone and particulates. Scientists discovered two atmospheric plumes reached the coast. The first was of ozone and stretched about two miles wide. The second plume was made up of particulates and was more than 18 miles wide.

"Normally, the marine air is very clean in that part of the Gulf," said NOAA scientists Joost de Gouw, one of the report's co-authors. "The oil spill put a source of pollution in there that brought levels of levels of ozone and particulates that are normally seen in cities."

Doctor Luann White of the Tulane School of Public Health said if there was any silver lining, it's that the spill did not happen closer to shore.

"The fact it was 50 miles offshore, really was a mitigating factor in actual health effects," White said. "But we are also concerned about many of the ecological effects. If we can go back, re-analyze this data, it will help us understand what goes on -- and then be better prepared for the next oil spill."

Researchers said that was their goal in conducting the study in the first place -- to help communities be ready for how to react to future spills.

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