New Orleans – Today (Feb. 28) federal health experts began sending out letters to people who were and still are involved in the massive BP oil spill cleanup along the gulf coast.
The researchers want to know if the workers’ health has been impacted by coming in contact with the volumes of oil which spewed into the gulf off Louisiana’s coast for months and the unprecedented amount of dispersants used to break up the crude.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in New Orleans on Monday.
“Our workers deserve to know that the National Institutes of Health, the experts in the nation on health and disease are going to be looking specifically at oil and dispersants to make sure that workers are followed and looked at,” Jackson stated.
It is the environmental health arm of the NIH that is kicking off the largest ever study to date on an oil spill.
“The gulf study will help us learn if oil spills and exposure to crude oil, dispersants and fumes affect physical and mental health,” said Dr. Dale Sandler, the chief researcher.
Federal researchers eventually want to reach out to more than 100,000 cleanup workers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, with a goal of having 55,000 of them actually involved in the study which will include medical examinations.
“Samples of blood, urine, toenail clippings, hair and house dust will be collected,” said Sandler.
“It turned it upside down, I have a 16 year old which is at home, I can’t do anything with her,” said Bridge City resident Helena Davis. Though she had no involvement in the cleanup or the fishing industry, she maintains that since April 29, 2010 she has been ill with a disease that’s affecting her appearance and overall quality of life.
“My doctor is saying it’s a bell’s palsy that was induced by heavy metals,” said Davis. She provided what she said are lab test rests showing high levels of benzene, xylene and other chemicals in her blood stream.
Davis and others are upset that the gulf study which will follow oil cleanup workers for up to 10 years does not include members of the general public.
“I spoke to someone in the beginning and she already told me that I was eliminated because I didn’t work in the cleanup,” Davis stated.
Environmental activist Elizabeth Cook agrees. “If they’re not willing to admit that there is a crisis now, that people are experiencing, yes, I do question ultimately the results of such a study.
Standler insists her team is not ignoring the general public in studying the spill’s effect. In fact, she said that the NIH is partnering with local health professionals and universities to focus on general complaints.
And she added that members of her team have already met with at least one doctor in this area who has been taking blood tests for people who believe their health has been compromised by the spill.
“When we talk about studying the gulf coast it looks at the effect of oil and the chemicals that have come along with oil, things like benzene and the dispersants,” said Lisa Jackson.
The study will also examine factors which could explain why some people are more likely than others to get sick.
But scientists said those counting on the study providing definitive answers on whether the spill maligned people’s health are out of luck.
“We can never demonstrate exact cause and effect or provide proof in this type of observational study,” stated Dr. Sandler.
She also conceded that because this is a heavily industrial area, investigators have their work cut out for them when it comes to determining whether high levels of benzene and other chemicals are due solely to the spill. She said benzene exposure can come from cigarette smoke and something as simple as pumping gasoline.