PUBLIC HEALTH:

Questions linger about effects of spill, chemicals on Gulf Coast residents

Andre Gaines was among thousands of unemployed Gulf Coast residents who saw an opportunity in the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year.

Gaines, an athletic 27-year-old from Lucedale, Miss., was quickly hired by a subcontractor for BP PLC, the oil company responsible for the leaking well. But after switching from working on boats to beach cleanup, Gaines said he developed a dry, hacking cough, as did most of his co-workers.

"It was like a circus," he recalled. "The oil and chemicals were contaminating the bus, our homes, our families."

The cough, nausea, and a rash on his arm forced him into the hospital. He wasn't able to see specialists familiar with chemical or oil exposure, he said, and the hospital sent him home. So three days later, he went to another hospital, which admitted him for two weeks. Test results, he said, came back inconclusive.

Now, Gaines, a father of two, said he still has spells of nausea, shortness of breath and headaches. And nobody, he said, seems to care.

"Who do we call? Our government is not talking about this," he said. "They took advantage of us."

An unscientific survey of nearly 1,000 Gulf Coast residents by the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade suggests Gaines is not alone. Nearly half of the surveyed residents said they began suffering coughs, eye irritation, headaches or other symptoms after the BP well began spewing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf and cleanup crews dispersed nearly 2 million gallons of chemicals to soak up the oil.

Assessing Gulf Coast health problems and determining whether they are related to the spill and cleanup is no easy task. 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 lack of real-time data has led some to speculate that even if there is a widespread health impact, it will be months or years before anyone knows or does anything to help, prompting comparisons to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the sluggish response to worker health issues following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"A lot of people feel that they are sick from symptoms that started around the time of the oil spill and haven't been resolved," said Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They don't have a place to go to report their symptoms, get them assessed and catalogued to feel that their illnesses are being tracked in any way."

A year after the spill, there is still no government-sponsored registry of illnesses on the Gulf Coast. Immediately after the accident, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals was tracking symptoms, but that effort ended last September.

The Bucket Brigade survey of 954 Gulf Coast residents from July to October of last year that was released last month found that nearly half reported an increase in symptoms like coughing, skin and eye irritation as well as headaches. Approximately the same percentage of people also said they believe they were exposed to oil or chemical dispersants.

The residents also reported a sudden onset of the symptoms directly after the spill.

Further, advocates say, there is a shortage of clinics specializing in environmental chemical exposures. The nearest, they say, is an Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics-certified clinic in Tampa, Fla.

Several watchdogs said BP should be funding clinics and states or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could undertake the tracking responsibilities. Without an increased effort, care for respiratory ailments and depression -- health problems that surfaced after the Exxon Valdez spill -- will continue to be lacking.

"There's been zero health care here, and we know how this turns out," said Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, referring to problems after the Exxon Valdez spill. "We know what happens. That all began exactly how this is beginning."

BP insists it kept close tabs on chemical exposures of cleanup workers.

"That exposure monitoring consistently indicated that responders' exposures to chemicals of concern were well below the most conservative occupational exposure limits established by governmental authorities and voluntary professional organizations," BP America's Hejdi Feick said. "In fact, most exposure levels were below the detection limits of the devices being used to collect the samples."

Feick also said BP arranged for medical care for workers during the spill and "anyone with health concerns of any sort during the response was encouraged to seek immediate evaluation and all of these cases were documented."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration added that it was part of a large, coordinated government effort to monitor such chemical exposures.

"[OSHA] worked alongside other federal agencies to aggressively ensure that BP and its contractors protected the safety and health of workers involved in the spill response and cleanup operations," Jason Surbey, an OSHA spokesman, said in a statement. "OSHA conducted more than 4,200 site visits on land and in boats across four states to ensure BP and its contractors provided workers necessary personal safety equipment and the proper training to keep workers safe during this unprecedented response."

Studies start

BP is also quick to point out that it has contributed $10 million for a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) study that will be the largest ever conducted on the health effects of an oil spill.

The Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study, or GuLF study, is under way and intends to survey 55,000 cleanup workers. It is expected to last at least 10 years and cost more than $10 million (Greenwire, March 1).

Dale Sandler, an NIEHS epidemiologist, said the study will draw subjects from a list of 150,000 cleanup workers. Reaching out to those workers by phone, researchers hope to enroll 55,000 in their project. Among those, 20,000 will be asked to sign up for a second phase that includes a home visit, submitting urine and blood samples, lung tests, blood pressure, toenail clippings as well as hair and house dust.

"We're focused on the workers because if we see something in them, it's a sentinel," Sandler said. "They are the group where it would be most likely to see health effects."

While they by and large support the NIEHS study, activists point out what they say are two holes in the research plan.

First, they say, the survey does not include those who were exposed to oil and chemical dispersants but who did not work on the cleanup, and second, no treatment is associated with the study.

Sandler's response: "The people who were involved in the cleanup were the normal people," she said. "Mostly they were people who were neighbors and community members. People who are fisherman, for example, or others who were out of work and were taking advantage of the opportunity for employment to clean up the beaches and the marshes."

Plus, Sandler added, there are another two to four studies soon to be announced that will look specifically at the spill's community impacts.

Another NIEHS division is currently reviewing applications for joint community-academic studies that cumulatively will receive $5.3 million in funding from several National Institutes of Health organizations.

"There was a strong message that the community wanted to be involved in the research that was relevant to their health and well being," said Claudia Thompson of NIEHS's Division of Extramural Research and Training, which is overseeing those grants. "These studies will show how communities respond to adverse and stressful events. They'll take the information and give it back to the community."

Nine institutes and centers within NIH are contributing money for those studies, Thompson said. The applications are currently being reviewed and will likely be announced in June. They will be five-year studies.

"There is significant value added to the communities participating in the research," Thompson said.

Delayed results?

But it remains to be seen how the studies will help Betty Doud, 51, a beachcomber from Grand Isle, La.

Doud wasn't a cleanup worker and said that since the spill she frequently experiences a runny nose and headaches and her eyes burn. She also suffers from chest pains and has "no energy whatsoever."

"I used to be a hyperactive person," she said. "Now I can't get out of bed some days. It's weird, I've never had to deal with this crap before."

Doud said her symptoms seem to be getting worse. "I've been getting confused quite often the past couple months," she said. "Loss of memory."

The NIEHS study -- which won't include Doud because she wasn't a cleanup worker -- won't share any results for at least six months. "We're moving as quickly as we can," Sandler insisted, noting that this sort of research typically takes years.

And NIEHS's Thompson added that there are no timelines for the community-based projects yet.

But that delay only underscores the need for a more committed government response now, Solomon of NRDC said. She noted that it took almost 10 years for Congress to pass legislation to compensate the workers involved in the 9/11 response.

"It would be sad, very said," she said, "if it takes 10 years for the people of the Gulf to get the help they need. I certainly hope people learn from how bad it got for 10 years after 9/11."

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