October 11 (News) – A potentially major oil spill from an abandoned tanker in the Red Sea could endanger public health in war-torn Yemen and neighboring countries if urgent action is not taken, a study published Monday by Nature Sustainability found.
The FSO Safer, currently about 5 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen, contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, more than four times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
The damaged ship, abandoned since 2015 due to the civil war in Yemen, will increasingly leak oil due to the deterioration of its hull or catch fire from the accumulation of volatile gases, the researchers said.
According to the researchers, the Safer is currently under the control of the Houthis, an insurgent group of Islamists from northwestern Yemen.
Despite the impending emergency, negotiations between the United Nations and the group had stalled, it said.
“Most people can easily imagine the impact a massive spill could have on the environment, but the public health impact, especially in a region in the midst of a humanitarian crisis like Yemen, is more difficult to pin down,” study co-author Benjamin Huynh said in a press release.
“Our hope is that by characterizing the public health threat the ship poses, we can more accurately convey the urgency of the situation,” said Huynh, a graduate student in biomedical informatics at Stanford University.
It is well known that major oil spills have far-reaching ecological and economic consequences.
The researchers modeled Safer’s oil spill under a variety of weather conditions, taking into account past wind patterns, currents, sea temperature, salinity, and seasonal and diurnal weather variations.
Thousands of simulations covered a wide range of possible spill duration and trajectories, the researchers said.
The simulations conducted by Hunyh and his colleagues showed that if air pollution were to go completely out, it would increase the risk of hospitalization related to heart and lung disease by up to 42%, the data showed.
Cleaners and others who have been directly exposed to the oil could be at nearly six times the risk of heart and lung disease.
These potential health effects are likely to be underestimated, given that oil spills are known to cause brain, blood, skin, and psychiatric symptoms as well, the researchers said.
In addition, the simulations showed that it would take six to ten days for the oil from the tanker to reach the west coast of Yemen and hit its ports within two weeks.
The spillage and subsequent port closings could disrupt deliveries of critical goods and food aid and exacerbate the bottlenecks through an ongoing sea and air blockade of the country led by Saudi Arabia, the researchers said.
The supply of millions of people with clean water is also endangered by the contamination of desalination plants along the Red Sea, according to the researchers.
The simulations also showed that a six-day cleaning effort would be no more effective than simply letting the oil evaporate, leaving nearly 40% of the oil in the water, regardless of which method was used.
“We knew, of course, that an oil spill would have some negative effects, but were surprised at how many people would be affected in most of our scenarios,” said David Rehkopf, co-author of the study, in a press release.
“We hope so [our paper] is putting more pressure on the international community to dump the oil and prevent this disaster, “said Rehkopf, associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford.