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Deserted oil tanker in the Red Sea is a danger to public health

A new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability warns that a massive prospective spill from a deserted oil tanker in the Red Sea could have catastrophic public health effects in Yemen and neighboring countries.

The FSO Safer is a tanker abandoned since 2015 due to the conflict in Yemen. It is currently located five nautical miles off Yemen’s coast and contains 1.1 million barrels of oil. The tanker is increasingly likely to leak oil due to the deterioration of its hull, or to catch fire through a buildup of volatile gases.

A research team led by Stanford University modeled the tanker spilling oil under various weather conditions, taking into account variables such as wind patterns, sea temperatures, current patterns, and salinity gradients. 

The scientists estimated that it would take six to ten days for the oil to reach Yemen’s coastline, significantly impacting Yemen’s port within two weeks, and the port of Aden within three weeks. The delivery of critical supplies could be disrupted, and millions of people might be left without clean water and food aid. Moreover, about 38 percent of Yemen’s fuel needs could be seriously affected, causing fuel prices to spike.        

“Yemen is very fuel-dependent, so losing fuel means shutting down things like hospitals and water systems,” said Benjamin Huynh, a graduate student in Biomedical Informatics at Stanford University. “The main takeaway I want audiences to have is that this environmental disaster would also be a severe humanitarian disaster, and that a massive oil spill can substantially harm human health.”  

According to the simulations, the air pollution from a full spill would increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory hospitalizations by 5.8 percent in Yemen’s general population, with cleanup workers and others directly exposed to the oil potentially experiencing up to 530 percent increase of such risks.    

“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,” said David Rehkopf, an associate professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, and co-director of the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences. “We hope that puts more pressure on the international community to offload the oil and prevent this disaster.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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