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. Massive Philippines Oil Spill Raises Health Fears

Hazardous work - Philippino residents clean up one of Guimaras island's beaches which was destroyed by the recent oil spill. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Joel Nito
Nueva Valencia (AFP) Philippines, Aug 24, 2006
Hundreds of people have fallen sick and one man has died in central Philippines following the country's worst ever oil spill, health officials said Thursday. The health department has sent medical teams to Guimaras island, which bore the brunt of the disaster, where 329 people have complained of a range of symptoms including skin irritation and respiratory problems.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque arrived in the nearby city of Iloilo Thursday to see conditions first hand following the sinking of an oil tanker off Guimaras on August 11.

The sunken ship has discharged more than 50,000 gallons of industrial oil into pristine waters.

The tanker, said to be resting on the seabed with 450,000 gallons still in its hold, has been described an ecological time bomb by environmentalists.

Petron Corp, the company that contracted the tanker, said it would continue to provide the assistance necessary to clean up contaminated coastline.

"We know there are health problems but we are addressing them by coordinating medical assistance with the local health office and national health department," Petron chief executive Nicasio Alcantara said in a press conference in Manila.

Four members of the United States coastguard and experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency also arrived in Iloilo on Thursday to assess the damage and see how they could help. Two of them flew over the area while two others travelled by boat to Guimaras.

They join Japanese experts who have already been sent to assist in dealing with the disaster.

Duque said the department would look into the case of Rogelio Dalida, a fisherman from Nueva Valencia town in Guimaras who reportedly died of a heart attack after inhaling oil fumes.

He had been suffering from asthma and the fumes could have aggravated his condition, Duque said.

Nueva Valencia mayor Diosdado Gonzaga confirmed one man in his town died last week but said more tests were needed to determine if his heart attack was brought on by the oil spill or not.

Duque said the health department would also look into hundreds of complaints by Guimaras residents of health problems possibly arising from the oil slick. These range from skin irritation and respiratory problems to stomach aches and nausea, Duque said.

Two health department toxicologists have been dispatched to look into the possibility of relocating some coastal residents away from the shore.

Duque has warned residents that exposure to the oil could lead to illnesses and advised them not to eat items taken from the polluted waters.

Residents have been forced to use improvised spill booms, made of bamboo and dried grass, to try to prevent black sludge washing up onto beaches.

A Japanese salvage vessel is expected to arrive off Guimaras by Sunday.

The salvage ship is equipped with a remote-controlled mini-submarine which can search the seabed for the sunken tanker, Duque added.

Based on the salvage vessel's findings, Petron will decide whether to try to raise the tanker, or just siphon off the oil.

Oil has contaminated more than 300 kilometers (200 miles) of coastline on Guimaras and is now threatening Negros island, the country's fourth-largest, and Panay island. Oil has also destroyed 454 hectares (1,120 acres) of mangroves and 58 hectares of seaweed farms.

Tourism to the island, once known for its pristine beaches, has also been hit hard.

The government set up a commission of inquiry into the disaster on Wednesday and has given it three days to submit an initial report.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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