By Alison Lynch and Krista Yacovone
Interns, Disaster Accountability Project

(Alison graduated Mt. Holyoke College in 2010 and will start law school this Fall)
(Krista is a rising 2L at Fordham University School of Law in New York City)

While the effects of the nation’s most devastating environmental disaster will be felt for years to come in a variety of ways, one of the most obvious impacts will be on the health of Gulf region residents and clean-up workers. Health, however, is not one-dimensional, as those in range of the oil spill may feel physical as well as psychological effects. Indeed, given the string of human, economic, and environmental hardships borne by the Gulf region in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the psychological effects of this newest disaster may take the greatest toll.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in coordination with state and local health departments, are using two established national surveillance systems, National Poison Data System (NPDS) and BioSense to monitor health effects related to the oil spill. At the time of this posting, the NPDS had taken at least 588 exposure calls. Most of these exposures were through inhalation or on-skin contact and the most commonly reported symptoms have included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, throat irritation, eye pain, coughing/choking and dizziness.

Different states have reported different health effects.  For example, the Alabama health surveillance system reported eight patients who might have swallowed, breathed, or touched the oil. In contrast, Louisiana has found 109 health complaints related to exposure to oil spill pollutants. Although nine people had short hospitalizations, the general population reported symptoms considered mild or treatable. Along with the states’ systems, CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is working to protect workers and volunteers from safety and health hazards resulting from the spill and clean-up efforts.

Besides the oil itself, the dispersants used in the clean-up may cause adverse health effects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been monitoring BP’s use of dispersants in the Gulf. Although additional tests are needed to glean further information on dispersant toxicity, the EPA has found that out of eight products tested, the product currently in use, Corexit 9500 A, and another product, JD 2000, were found to be the least toxic to small fish. None of the dispersants tested displayed biologically significant endocrine disrupting activity. The EPA is continuing research on the toxicity and effectiveness of dispersants before making any final recommendations.

The EPA is also working to monitor the air quality in the Gulf region, especially tracking levels of ozone and airborne particulate matter (see more about this in a later blog post).

Despite these efforts, the long-term health effects of the oil spill are largely unknown and the immediate manifestation of mild effects may downplay the potential long-term health hazards. Many in the Gulf region still feel frustrated, lacking guidance from health officials. This is somewhat the result of the very limited research available on the health effects of spilled petroleum. Only seven of the 400 tanker spills since 1960 have been studied, and those results have indicated risks to the eyes, skin, nervous system, and possible DNA damage.

There is also specific concern about the impact on children and those with preexisting health conditions. On June 16, 2010, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health conducted a Congressional Hearing that addressed the actions of the Department of Health and Human Services to identify and address potential health effects of the spill. John Howard, director of NIOSH, gave testimony that identified greater potential problems for children as well as for those with preexisting conditions, such as asthma or heart disease.

The physical effects of the oil spill are merely the tip of the iceberg of anticipated health problems in the region. Gulf Coast residents and workers may also suffer severe mental health effects. However, BP has failed to respond to multiple requests by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) for funding targeted at mental health services for those most seriously affected. DHH is seeking $10 million in aid from BP to revive the DHH Louisiana Spirit teams, which were initially set up for post-Katrina mental health assistance. Louisiana Spirit offers a wide spectrum of therapeutic and psychiatric services.

Undeniably, the psychological effects of the spill have already set in. Those hit hardest are showing the same symptoms observed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Despair, depression and frustration run rampant. Reports of domestic violence, as well as child abuse, are expected to rise as families struggle to keep their heads above the waters of day-to-day uncertainty and many fishermen turn to alcohol abuse. In Bayou La Batre, Alabama alone there has been a 320 percent increase in domestic violence incidents since the spill. Boat captain Allen Kruse’s suicide on June 23 is serving as a stark reminder that these emotions can have tragic results.

Awareness of the toll that the spill has taken on mental health is especially important in the wake of President Obama’s six-month moratorium on offshore drilling. This ban forces thirty-three rigs drilling on the Gulf’s outer continental shelf to shut down, inciting panic and fear among the estimated 110,000-plus who work in connection with drilling who feel as if they are being punished for one company’s missteps. Arguments regarding the ban, which has already been contested by several corporations and was lifted by the Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on June 25, will be heard by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 8. The ban and surrounding controversy has led to increased awareness of long-term health effects, both physical and mental.

With a great deal of attention focused on those most affected by the spill and consequent drilling ban, federal and state governments and relief organizations must continue to work to minimize health effects over the next several years. It is crucial to provide resources to Louisiana residents; the impact of this spill has hit them worse than the nation’s economic downturn, from which they had been largely insulated. Health problems, coupled with psychological distress, must be anticipated and alleviated, and BP must be pressured to provide the funding and support that the residents and aid workers deserve.