While it is clear that the Gulf oil spill took an immeasurable toll on the ecosystem and natural resources of the Gulf region, the spill’s effect on the health of residents and cleanup workers remains largely unknown. What is known is that over 200 million gallons of oil, as well as approximately 1.84 million gallons of dispersants used in an attempt to break up the oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. There have been widespread reports of symptoms like headaches, eye irritation, nausea, and coughs by residents and cleanup workers, which they attribute to exposure to oil and/or the chemical dispersants.
Cleanup workers like Andre Gaines say they’ve developed dry coughs, nausea, and even skin rashes, but have seen no public health response to their claims. In a New York Times story yesterday, Gaines described leaving hospital visits with no answers about his symptoms. “Who do we call? Our government is not talking about this,” Gaines says in the article. “They took advantage of us.”
The Times-Picayune reports that one three year-old who visited the Gulf on vacation after the spill had blood levels with three times the normal level of ethylbenzene (a toxin). This result is mirrored in blood tests conducted on a broad swath of Gulf residents.
One survey conducted by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that “Almost three quarters of respondents who believed they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant also reported experiencing symptoms.”
As the New York Times article reports, however, assessing the long-term health effects, and holding the responsible parties accountable are complicated endeavors. “The problem, advocates say, is that there is little access to health care or specialists familiar with treating oil and chemical exposures. Further, they say, no reliable registry of these health problems exists, though a $10 million federal study of the health effects of an oil spill was recently launched.”
The question remains as to whether BP will foot the bill for spill-related health screening and treatment of those who may have been exposed to oil or dispersants. The oil giant has contributed $10 million for a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study that will analyze the long-term health effects of the spill on cleanup workers. But advocates have raised major concerns about the study, including the cost of the delay in financing the study, and the fact that the study only includes cleanup workers. Moreover, there is no treatment associated with the study for those who evidence health-related problems from oil or dispersant exposure.
More information about the health effects of the BP oil spill is available here.