Oil-spill health impact studied


HOUMA — A study has begun into the long-term health effects suffered by oil-spill workers in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

But some say the study won’t do enough to get medical treatment to those suffering due to the spill today.

“What is your research going to do for a guy like me that’s sitting at home dying every day?” Clayton Matherne, a 35-year-old Bayou Blue resident, asked National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum at a meeting Wednesday in Montegut.

Birnbaum and other National Institute of Health staff members toured the area with representatives of BISCO, a local church-based social-service and advocacy group. They met with residents and talked about environment and health issues.

The Study

The study aims to interview 55,000 people who worked spill-response jobs with varying levels of exposure to crude oil and the dispersant Corexit following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April. More than 100,000 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida will be contacted. As many as 25,000 of the people interviewed will be tracked over the next 10 to 20 years, Birnbaum said, as researchers document their health, lifestyle and seafood-consumption habits and track any illnesses, new and old, attempting to find causes and effects. They’ll collect blood, urine, fingernails and hair clippings to test for chemical exposures and other ailments.

The National Institutes of Health has $17.8 million committed to the Gulf worker study, with $6 million coming from BP.

“This is the largest study ever conducted on human health in the aftermath of an oil spill,” Birnbaum said.

Of more than 30 post-oil-spill investigations done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, just two looked at long-term health, she said.

The study’s first recruiting letters will go out beginning Feb. 28, Birnbaum said. Home visits and interviews will begin in May.

Help Is Needed Now

Matherne said he believes the study may be too little, too late for him. He said he was diagnosed with benzene poisoning after he worked skimming oil on the Gulf in May and has since suffered increasingly severe health effects.

“They found out my lungs almost completely shut down,” he said. “I cough up chunks of meat. Black stuff comes out of my nose and ears. I’ve lost half my eyesight.”

He also has neurological problems, he said, including seizures. Due to his illness, Matherne said he can no longer work, and medical bills and household expenses consumed small legal settlement he received. He and his wife, who care for their two grandchildren have lost their house and depend on help from charity organizations to survive. Matherne said he can’t afford some of the medicines and care doctors have recommended.

“We need medical help,” said his wife, Becky. “We need financial help.”

Wilma Subra, an independent chemist from New Iberia, said she has been involved with the study from the beginning. She said the mission of the study is “very good,” but she has some concerns. The study is only including spill workers, but coastal residents were also exposed and made sick, she said. They’ll also only be documenting health issues, not providing medical care.

Participants will be referred to doctors as needed, Birnbaum said. The National Institutes of Health also has $5.1 million in competitive grants available for university-based projects that specifically focus on the health of coastal residents who didn’t do spill-related work.

Independent Research

Working with Louisiana nonprofit groups, including the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Subra has tested the blood of Gulf Coast residents, as well as soil, air and seafood, for oil-related chemicals.

She said she has found high concentrations of ethyl benzene, a chemical found in oil that can affect the nervous system, in the blood of Gulf Coast residents.

Of five people tested by Subra based on samples she collected in December, one male diver who had been working in the Gulf had the highest concentration of ethyl benzene in his blood, at 5.7 times the accepted level of concern. A 3-year-old boy had 3.3 times the accepted level, she said.

Subra has tested residents from across the Gulf Coast, including some from Terrebonne and Lafourche.

Coastal rsidents were exposed to toxic oil chemicals in the early days of the spill when the Gulf, buffeted by strong winds, created a kind of “aerosol” that left those living along the coast sick with symptoms like headaches, nausea and respiratory issues, she said.

There were also people like the fishermen who took jobs working the cleanup as contractors with BP, and people living and working in the Gulf who’ve continually come in contact with leftover oil along the coast.

“These are the people who are very, very sick,” Subra said. They are suffering from respiratory issues, skin lesions, liver damage, internal bleeding, headaches, nausea and other debilitating illnesses.

Subra said she has found that many of these people are still employed in spill-related jobs and continue their work despite the illnesses because they need the money.

“After work,” she said, “they call me. I know that these people are very sick, and their health symptoms match the health symptoms of someone exposed to these chemicals.”

Subra has shared her results with government agencies involved with the spill. She said there are continuing needs along the Gulf Coast.

“The study is an important step, but it’s only one step,” she said. “We’re in desperate need of medical care for these people.”

Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or nicole.buskey@houmatoday.com.

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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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