Oil Spills May Leave More Emotional Than Physical Scars, Study Finds
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Times Topic: Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill (2010)
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The review, published online Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, considers the various risks posed by the spill, including contaminants from crude oil and dispersant, as well as how effects may differ depending on a person’s exposure during the spill. With several qualifications, mostly relating to a lack of available data, the authors found that the likelihood of serious long-term problems from components of the oil is low for residents and onshore cleanup workers.
The authors did, however, raise concerns about those who cleaned up the oil offshore and were exposed to it at its freshest. “There have been few studies of longer term health consequences” in this population of workers, the authors said. There is also little data assessing the effect of oil spill exposure on children.
William Sawyer, a toxicologist who has been monitoring the effects of the spill along the coast, said he welcomed a review of the data, but pointed out limitations in comparing this spill to previous ones.
“The intensity of exposure as well as the duration of exposure in this scenario, due to its ongoing release as opposed to an acute oil spill, are different,” Dr. Sawyer said.
“We may find that we have a higher percentage of long-term effects than published in the other studies.”
Concerns about possible fallout have not gone away and are still frequently heard along the coast. Though there are isolated reports of severe symptoms, complaints of milder problems, like headaches, are more common.
Some of the symptoms people are reporting, including headaches, pains and insomnia, are also associated with stress and anxiety, said one of the review’s authors, Dr. Howard J. Osofsky, chairman of the psychiatry department at Louisiana State University’s medical school. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 had already left many along the gulf with higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress.
Dr. Osofsky also emphasized the worries that came with so much uncertainty, pointing out that even 10 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill some Alaskans had not fully resumed their normal livelihoods.
Isolating the spill’s direct health effects is complicated because the gulf states already have significant health problems, the authors say, pointing out that Louisiana ranks near the top among states in death rates from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
This difficulty is compounded by the delay in starting rigorous studies. This year, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences announced the beginning of a 10-year study of the health of cleanup workers and volunteers that according to the review was not financed until six months after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
That delay will be costly, the authors of the review say, as certain health markers fade over time and more persistent effects “are likely to be confounded by other types of exposures.” The lack of baseline data on workers will make it even more difficult to draw definitive conclusions.
“Not only are we not prepared to handle the amount of crude that was spilled into the gulf and not prepared to handle the environmental impact, but clearly the human health impacts are not being addressed,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist who provides technical assistance to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Dr. Bernard Goldstein, one of the authors of the review and a professor at the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, was also quick to criticize the government on the topic of dispersant.
Dr. Goldstein did not fault the government for the usage of the dispersant, Corexit, but for allowing its ingredients to remain a secret for so long under the Toxic Substances Control Act. This confidentiality, which the dispersant’s manufacturer waived after weeks of resistance, contributed to the profound anxiety among workers and Gulf Coast residents.
The proprietary ingredient in Corexit turned out to be a commonly used stool softener and, according to the article, human exposure during the spill was trivial. But, Dr. Goldstein said, the fear of Corexit’s effects probably led to some of the mental and behavioral health problems, even if the dispersant itself did not.
“Here you’ve contributed to what to me are the major health effects, which are the psychosocial effects and the disruptions to the community,” he said. “You’ve contributed to this to keep something secret for which we’re not going to see direct human health effects.”