Government to study physical and psychological harm of BP oil spill

Working with teams of doctors, scientists, and public health experts, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is currently planning and developing a large-scale study of the short-term and long-term physical and psychological tolls the BP oil spill has had upon the cleanup workers and the larger population of the Gulf Coast. The federal agency expects the study to encompass several thousands of people in the five states adversely affected by the massive oil spill: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

For weeks, scientists and government agencies have struggled to predict what potential health consequences the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have and will continue to have for those living and working near the region.

HHS enlisted the help of the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing unbiased professional advice to decision makers and the public, to assemble a committee of experts who will review the effects of the oil spill. BP is contributing $10 million to the study.

Because the spill was so large and directly affected the residents along 700 miles of Gulf coast, planners expect the study to attract some 27,000 participants, including workers who participated in oil cleanup and others who came into contact with the oil or the potentially toxic chemicals used to break it down and disperse it.

Unfortunately, although 38 large oil spills have occurred in the U.S. in the last 50 years, very little research has been done on the oil’s lasting effects on human health. In fact, only eight of those spills were studied for their human impact, and all of those spills paled in size, scope, and duration to BP’s Gulf oil spill.

Since the onset of the oil spill on April 20, Beasley Allen has often reported on the devastating physical and emotional effects the massive oil spill had on residents of communities along the Gulf Coast. Shrimpers plying the waters still open while the oil well was still uncapped reported strong fumes that left them feeling dizzy, faint, and nauseated for weeks. In May, many shrimpers in Southeastern Louisiana told public officials that they were contemplating suicide as the oil slick left them jobless and threatened to destroy their way of life forever. In June, a charter boat owner and captain committed suicide before heading out again into the Gulf to battle the encroaching sludge. In July, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin returned home to Bayou La Batre, Alabama to listen to the people of her community talk about how the oil spill was the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to them.

From its earliest stages, the BP oil disaster showed signs of adversely impacting the residents of the Gulf Coast in much the same ways that people and communities were devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. That disaster, in which 11 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Prince William Sound, destroyed the health,  livelihoods, community bonds, and traditional ways of life for thousands of Alaskans.

By comparison, the BP disaster spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude and tons of natural gas into the Gulf.

Researchers will begin recruiting volunteers for the new HHS study in October.