Amir Mohareb, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the Nature Sustainability study, said the researchers’ findings “should serve as a wake-up call to the international community.”
“There will be widespread human costs with the oil spill off the coast of Yemen,” Mohareb said. “It will have the potential to overwhelm medical facilities and threaten the livelihoods and health of millions of people.”
Huynh, the lead author, said: “Most people can easily imagine how a massive spill could affect the environment, but the effects on public health, especially in a region going through a humanitarian crisis like Yemen, are difficult to understand. Therefore, we developed a model for it.”
The simulations reveal that air pollution from a leak “would increase the risks of hospitalisation for cardiovascular and respiratory causes, depending on the duration of the leak and the presence of smoke from combustion.”
Clean-up workers and other individuals directly exposed to the oil may be at increased risk of contracting the same diseases from inhaling fine particles, Huynh said.
The simulations also looked at clean-up efforts under different conditions, taking into account wind patterns, currents, sea temperature and salinity, and seasonal and daily fluctuations in weather. They concluded that even under very optimistic conditions, “attempts to clean up may be futile.”
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Even if clean-up began immediately with a combination of burners and dispersants under ideal conditions, the effort still could be no more effective than simply letting the oil evaporate, Huynh said. In either case, more than 40 percent of the oil would remain in the water.
“Our models show that clean-up efforts will not be very beneficial,” Huynh said. “The only real solution is to remove the oil from the ship, and there is still time to do that.”