Gulf Coast Physician: Adverse Health Impacts from Spill Are Afflicting “Hundreds and Hundreds of People”


A physician, and former state senator, is calling on the media to pay more attention to the widespread health impacts of the BP spill. He addressed the Baton Rouge Press Club with details of a half-dozen case studies ranging from a 3-year-old with blotchy skin to a relief worker who has gone blind to a host of others.

The Houma Today newspaper is qoting Dr. Mike Robichaux of Raceland, a practicing ear, nose and throat physician, as saying that adverse health impacts are affecting “hundreds and hundreds of people.” And he has the case histories and witnesses to prove it.

The Press Club heard from several sources on spill-related health impacts, and perhaps the most comprehensive study so far is from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. The New Orleans-based nonprofit environmental health and justice organization conducted 1,000 health-related surveys in southeast Louisiana and found that “almost three quarters of respondents who believed they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant also reported experiencing symptoms.”

The Houma Today story also quotes Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (disclosure: Ms. Orr is a valued colleague and LEAN is a longtime client of mine), who reminded reporters that getting to the bottom of the spill’s health impacts will take a lot of digging and patience. Ms. Orr: “It’s sort of like gathering evidence at a crime scene.” I’ll say, perhaps the biggest crime scene of the century.

The fact is that people up and down the Gulf Coast are sick and getting sicker from the BP spill. The problem is they don’t have a megaphone to let the rest of the country know about it – maybe taking the story directly to a press club will help. Either way, you have to admire the folks who are stepping up.

More than a month ago, we called on the national media to shine a light on the spill’s health effects (see re-post below) – and we do so again today. This is one of the biggest missed stories of the last several months. The local media has kept on top of it, but the national media has been noticeably absent on this extremely important issue.

Here’s the Houma Today newspaper report:

Here is the open letter we posted to the national media back in mid-February:

Where is the National Media Coverage?

  • February 12, 2011 5:17 pm

An open letter to members of the national media:

I know many of you with national voices read this blog, because you’ve been kind enough to tell me so. I’ve raised a glass or two with some of you, and traded barbs with others. It’s been an honor to, on occasion, be included in your work. Your reporting and attention is valued, and that’s why I’m addressing you personally and collectively in this post.

We’re dying down here on the Gulf – and we need your help to restore our way of life and our culture.

The economic devastation is hitting everyone from waitresses to fishermen to restaurateurs to property owners. Figuratively and literally, we’re dying. My neighbors and some of my clients are reporting severe illnesses directly related to the spill. We have names, we have case studies. We even have some local reporters with the courage to cover what is fast becoming a health crisis among cleanup workers and residents living in coastal communities (see But local coverage, compelling as it is, isn’t enough.

We need the attention of the national media, and we need it right away.

From the beginning, human health effects of the spill have largely been pushed aside both by the federal government and the national media? We were hyper-focused on “who’s to blame?” and “when will they cap the well?” and how economic damages would be assessed. All the while, cleanup workers and coastal residents were inhaling toxic fumes – touching and, in some cases, swimming in contaminated Gulf waters. And soon enough, the oil and dispersants washed ashore, into our food chain and our population.

Government officials continue to say we’re all-clear – particularly when it comes to seafood safety. But these are the same BP “partners” who sold you the story of 5,000 barrels a day and rubber-stamped the use of the toxic dispersant Corexit. Let’s not forget when the U.S. Coast Guard became BP rent-a-cops and setup “safety zones” around heavily impacted areas to prevent journalists, photographers and other prying eyes from seeing the damage. Or when there were no underwater oil plumes, until of course, there were. Or the “vast majority of oil is gone” message, until that was laughed out of the debate. I don’t know about you, but I see a pattern here.

We’re awash in oil, dispersant and misinformation.

They tell us about the number of seafood tests they’ve conducted. But the bottom line is this: You can do a million of the wrong tests, and it won’t tell you a thing. You can sniff every damn shrimp in the Gulf, but if the toxins can’t be detected by smell, you’ll find nothing. If you control the test (and the government does) and you control the “safe levels” – you can declare anything safe.

For example, the consumption level for shrimp is set at FOUR. That’s four shrimp a week. Four? In New Orleans, that’s not a consumption level, that’s a shrimp cocktail – and a tiny one at that.

Look, four weeks after the Deepwater Horizon exploded and began the BP oil spill, some of us were saying that the real story was human health. In fact, my firm and others stepped in to prevent BP from demanding that cleanup workers sign legal waivers (so they couldn’t sue when they got sick or injured). Believe me, BP knew the risk early on. They just didn’t issue a press release.

But it seems the national media is still reluctant to shine a light on human health impacts. The congressional focus has remained on “who’s to blame?” and the media is focused on the claims process. It’s like our homes were firebombed, and the first responders were the arson investigators and insurance agents – rather than firemen with a hose.

A month after the explosion, I wrote that “human health is the real oil spill issue,” but was told “it’s too early to know, we have no test results.” (see Well, after the testing showed high-level toxic exposures, we were told “well, it’s not a story, because nobody is actually sick.” (see Now that people are getting sick all over the Gulf, we’re told “well, how do we know the spill caused it?”

Come on. We all know what it will take to make post-spill human health a story: When people start dying in large numbers. And make no mistake, that’s the next phase if we don’t address it, now. My colleagues, the researchers who work with me and with our environmental clients, are almost never wrong – that’s why they have been bullied around by government agencies hoping to intimidate independent researchers (see Even that got more coverage than most health issues.

Some of you have explained to me that your news organizations have their limits, and the implication is that a few hundred million in advertising and all those Important People who know your bosses are quick to discredit the “local” research. I’ll bite my tongue on that.

I applaud the media outlets that have been diligent and courageous enough to challenge the campaign of misinformation coming from BP and the federal government. To those news organizations that are reluctant to take a stand, I urge to get back to doing what has made the American media the envy of so many countries around the world: Seek the truth and hold responsible parties accountable (whoever they may be).

We’re really not so far from the heady media days of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and this unprecedented disaster demands an equally courageous response from our national media.

Please get back to doing what you do best!

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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