Investigating the Health Risks of the Gulf Oil Spill

July 9, 2010

What are the public health implications of the nation’s biggest environmental disaster? How will the stresses of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill compound health and mental health issues and further strain the medical resources of a region that has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina?  

These were questions that drew several Mailman School faculty members to Louisiana this past week. They were there on fact-finding missions and to present at a conference held on June 22 and 23 by the National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine titled “Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.”

Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) and David Abramson, PhD, NCDP director of research, met with local families at a series of town hall meeting at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana and in Mississippi, on June 21 and 22, to hear their concerns. One of the gatherings drew the attention of CBS News anchor Katie Couric, who interviewed Dr. Redlener for an evening news broadcast. Dr. Redlener was also interviewed for the PBS NewsHour.

View Katie Couric’s Interview with Dr. Redlener.

Some participants in the town hall session said the oil spill was even more calamitous than Katrina and they expressed high levels of anxiety. “It was revealing to learn that residents here feel that while Katrina may have destroyed their houses, they could rebuild.  This disaster is creating a greater sense of finality to the community,” said Dr. Redlener. Many participants—including children at a session for people ages 9 to 18—expressed fears that their fundamental way of life was endangered “The irrevocable damage to their communities and health feels very real and lasting. And that is terrifying.”

Participants also complained about the absence of guidance from political and health authorities. “We are seeing a palpable frustration among these families due to the lack of information about health risks in this region by trusted and important authorities,” said Dr. Abramson.

Federal, state and local officials “don’t seem to be able to provide the answers to both long and short-term risks that families need to hear right now,” added Dr. Redlener, who also serves as president of the nonprofit Children’s Health Fund.  The CHF and NCDP have been involved in providing health care and conducting research in Gulf in the aftermath of Katrina.

The team of scientists from NCDP and CHF also visited a federal mobile health unit meant to serve oil-spill clean-up workers and viewed the sullied waters of the gulf from fishing boats some ten miles from the coast.

Scientists and health officials participating in the IOM meeting explored the immediate and future public health needs of the Gulf region and the risks faced by clean-up workers as well as ordinary citizens. They also took note of the very limited amount of research available on the health effects of spilled petroleum. One researcher reported that of the 400 tanker spills that have occurred since the 1960s, only seven have been studied. The results indicate risks to the eyes, skin, and nervous system and possible DNA damage.

In his presentation, Dr. Abramson discussed ways to engage the public in protecting their own health. Dr. Redlener addressed the challenges for children and families and offered seven guidelines to follow during disaster response and recovery. Both the NCDP and CHF are preparing initiatives to provide additional public health support in the troubled region.