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ATSDR identifies health risks of chemicals in the Gulf Oil Spill

The 2010 Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest environmental disaster of its kind to occur in the history of the United States. The crude oil released into the Gulf contained nearly 200 toxic chemicals, some of them known to cause cancer.

Dr. FowlerIn response to the spill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to find out whether exposure to those chemicals would pose health risks. To do that, ATSDR had to identify the amounts of chemicals in the spill and decide if those amounts could harm human health. “Getting that information gives you an idea of what chemicals are of most concern,” explains Dr. Bruce Fowler, associate director for science in ATSDR’s Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine.

But information about health effects is limited for some of the chemicals and combinations of chemicals that were identified in the oil spill. With so little information how could ATSDR figure out whether they were dangerous to humans?

Answering such questions is the responsibility of ATSDR’s Computational Toxicology and Methods Development Laboratory (Comp Tox Lab). Comp Tox Lab scientists use available data together with computer programs known as computational modeling tools. “The computational tools used in the lab allow us to get a good assessment in a relatively short amount of time, which is really important when dealing with environmental emergencies like the Gulf Oil Spill,” says Dr. Fowler.

The Comp Tox Lab found that 16 of the chemicals present in the Gulf Oil Spill were part of a class called alkanes. ATSDR already had studied some of these chemicals thoroughly. Using the data they already had and the computational modeling tools, scientists were able to estimate health risks for exposure to chemicals within the alkane class that had not yet been investigated.

Comptox ScientistsScientists in the Comp Tox Lab also play a key role in discovering toxic risks of new chemicals that industries release every year, and for which information about health risks is not yet available. The computational tools compare already-published chemical data with the structures of new chemicals to provide early information on possible risks.

Dr. Fowler believes the computational tools used in the Lab hold great promise. “Some of the tools will get you maybe 60 or 70 percent of an answer, which is enough information to help guide laboratory research and provide a rapid response.”

The Comp Tox Lab also collaborates on projects with other public health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s National Center for Toxicological Research to predict health risks for both drugs and chemicals.

Dr. Fowler adds, “Because of the work done by the Comp Tox Lab and the collaborations developed with FDA, EPA, and other environmental health agencies, ATSDR is even more prepared now to respond to any possible emergencies that may arise in the future.”

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