Hundreds of people have fallen sick and one man has died in the central Philippines following the country's worst-ever oil spill, health officials said yesterday.
The health department has deployed medical teams to Guimaras Island, which bore the brunt of the disaster, where 329 people have complained of a range of health problems including skin irritation and respiratory problems.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque arrived in the nearby city of Iloilo yesterday to see first hand the conditions following the sinking of an oil tanker off Guimaras on Aug. 11 which has discharged more than 189,270 liters of industrial oil into the pristine seas.
The tanker, said to be resting on the seabed with 1.7 million liters still in its hold has been described as an ecological time bomb by environmentalists.
Four US coastguard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency experts also arrived in Iloilo yesterday to assess the damage and see how they could help.
They join Japanese experts who have already been sent to assist in 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 really 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 problems range from skin irritation and respiratory problems to stomach aches and nausea, Duque said.
Two toxicologists have been sent to Guimaras by the health department to look into the possibility of relocating some coastal residents away from the shore.
Duque has warned residents exposure to the oil could lead to illnesses and advised them not to eat any marine products 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.
They were also using buckets and shovels to scoop the sludge from the beaches.
Oil has contaminated more than 300km of coastline on Guimaras Island and is now threatening Negros, the country's fourth-largest island, as well as Panay Island.
Oil has also destroyed 454 hectares of mangroves and 58 hectares of seaweed farms.
Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz, who heads a task force on the oil spill said 3,700 families were affected by the disaster and that tourism to the island, once known for its pristine beaches, had 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.
The spill is already regarded as the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Philippines, stretching more than 18.5km and putting the livelihoods of thousands of poor fishermen at risk.