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Possible Red Sea oil spill further threatens health of Yemenis, study finds

Oct. 11 (UPI) -- A potentially large oil spill from an abandoned tanker ship in the Red Sea could threaten public health in war-torn Yemen and neighboring countries unless urgent action is taken, a study published Monday by Nature Sustainability found.

The FSO Safer, which is currently located roughly 5 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen, contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, more than four times the amount spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez.

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Abandoned since 2015 due to the civil war in Yemen, the damaged vessel is increasingly likely to leak oil due to the deterioration of its hull, or to catch fire through the buildup of volatile gases, the researchers said.

Currently, the Safer is under the control of the Houthis, an insurgent group of Islamists from northwestern Yemen, according to the researchers.

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However, despite the impending emergency, negotiations between the United Nations and the group have stalled, they said.

"Most people can easily imagine how a massive spill might affect the environment, but the effects on public health, especially in a region undergoing a humanitarian crisis like Yemen, are harder to grasp," study co-author Benjamin Huynh said in a press release.

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"Our hope is that by characterizing the public health threat the vessel poses, we can more accurately convey the urgency of the situation," said Huynh, a graduate student in biomedical informatics at Stanford University.

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Major oil spills are known to have wide-ranging environmental and economic consequences.

The researchers modeled the Safer spilling oil under a variety of weather conditions, taking into account past wind patterns, currents, sea temperature, salinity and seasonal and daytime fluctuations in weather.

Thousands of simulations covered a wide range of possible spill durations and trajectories, the researchers said.

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The simulations conducted by Hunyh and his colleagues revealed that air pollution from a full spill would increase the risk for heart and lung disease-related hospitalizations by up to 42%, the data showed.

Cleanup workers and other individuals directly exposed to the oil could experience a nearly six-fold increased risk for heart and lung illnesses.

These potential health effects are likely 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 it would take six to 10 days for oil from the tanker to reach Yemen's western coastline, impacting its ports within two weeks.

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The spill and subsequent port closures could disrupt the delivery of critical supplies and food aid, exacerbating shortages from an ongoing sea and air blockade of the country, led by Saudi Arabia, according to the researchers.

The supply of clean water to millions of people would also be threatened due to contamination of desalination plants along the Red Sea, the researchers said.

The simulations also revealed that a six-day cleanup effort would not be more effective than letting the oil simply evaporate, with nearly 40% of the oil remaining in the water regardless of which approach was used.

"We knew of course that there would be some negative impacts of an oil spill, but were surprised by how many people would be impacted in the majority of our scenarios," study co-author David Rehkopf said in a press release.

"We hope that [our paper] puts more pressure on the international community to offload the oil and prevent this disaster," said Rehkopf, an associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford.

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