No matter where you live in the U.S., you can’t turn on the TV or pick up a paper these days without hearing about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig at the end of April, roughly a million gallons of oil have been leaking into the ocean every day—putting the total number at more than 50 million gallons.

Still, while much of the focus has been on the surrounding wetlands and wildlife, little has been said about the oil spill’s effect on the human population. Like just how toxic is all that oil? And how is it going to affect not only the cleanup workers but the people living in the nearby communities? Well, it seems I’m not the only one who’s been wondering.

In a workshop arranged by the Institute of Medicine and held in New Orleans last month, medical researchers came together to discuss the toxic effects of oil spills on humans. Along with short-term effects like skin rashes, nausea, headaches and respiratory issues—common among cleanup workers exposed to crude oil—they looked at possible long-term effects such as cancer, especially with regard to children who are “less efficient at detoxifying and metabolizing chemicals” says Dr. Brenda Eskenazi at the University of California Berkeley.

Not only that, but experts looked at how oil spills like the one in the Gulf affect not just physical health but mental health, citing evidence of increased depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which can contribute to serious health problems such as heart attack, high blood pressure and other related issues. Pretty scary stuff, if you ask me.

The bottom line is that the whole situation is devastating, and even though it may be easier to just not turn on the TV or read the news, the more we learn about what’s happening in the Gulf and how we can make a difference—no matter how small—the more we can begin to take steps toward a safer, healthier future for all. My prayers go out to all those who have been affected by the oil spill, and I can only hope that the recent efforts to contain it will be successful.