Studying the health toll of the BP oil spill


The BP oil spill was singular not only for its gargantuan size, but also because it happened along a coast where millions of people live and work. That meant thousands of Gulf residents, especially those involved in cleanup efforts, were exposed to the oil and to the chemical dispersants used to fight the spill.

Many of those residents have asked themselves whether that exposure may one day affect their health. A new and significant study is designed to help provide answers – and that’s an important development.

A division of the National Institutes of Health is preparing to launch what researchers are calling a potentially ground-breaking study on the health effects of the disaster. The researchers plan to interview 55,000 Gulf Coast residents with varying levels of direct exposure to the oil and dispersants. The idea then is to track the health of roughly half of those individuals over the next decade to draw possible causes and effects.

The NIH already has committed almost $18 million for the study, including $6 million from BP. Epidemiologist Dale Sandler, who’s leading the study, said the first batch of recruiting letters will go out this month. About 100,000 coastal residents from Louisiana to Florida will be invited to participate – a sufficiently large group to account for variables such as level of exposure, medical history, job history and lifestyle.

At the same time, the National Toxicology Program is testing the chemical makeup of the Macondo well crude and of Corexit, the dispersant used in the disaster.

Ms. Sandler referred to the health study as an unprecedented and necessary effort. She’s right.

At the height of the BP spill, when tens of thousands of barrels of oil were spewing into the Gulf every day, public officials and environmentalists argued over the use of vast amounts of dispersants and how to best clean up the spill. Critics of dispersants warned of potentially negative effects, including on the health of cleanup workers. But both proponents and opponents had access to little scientific research on the issue, and that meant officials had to make a call on the dispersants without fully understanding all the potential effects.

There’s also relatively limited knowledge on the health effects of past oil spills, and that makes it harder to determine what workers exposed to the crude in the Gulf may face. Groups representing cleanup workers have said they know of some workers struggling with respiratory and gastrointestinal health problems generally associated with toxins.

In addition, in its final report, President Obama’s oil spill commission acknowledged the public’s concerns over health effects from the spill and over the government’s perceived lack of responsiveness on the issue. Commission members recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency set up a thorough protocol to monitor the health impact of major spills, and that’s a sensible proposal.

Ms. Sandler said there’s not much accepted science in the field. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been at least 31 reports of previous health studies after oil spills. But Ms. Sandler said only two of those studies followed cleanup workers long-term, and neither involved as many participants as the effort being launched in the Gulf.

Even a study of this magnitude, however, won’t always yield hard conclusions. “We will be talking about probabilities and likelihoods, not certainties,” Ms. Sandler said. That’s an important caveat.

But the upcoming research should help provide answers for thousands of Gulf residents – and gives us data that can better guide public policy decisions for future disasters.

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

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