When a Community is Sick: Gulf Coast Illnesses One Year after the BP Oil Spill
Last week I was in Washington to testify in front of a Senate committee about disease clusters - when a community is affected with strangely high rates of a certain disease over time. I was there to urge the Federal government not to overlook these communities, and to do the needed investigations to identify potential environmental causes. From doing this work I know that for every disease cluster studied, there are dozens that feel ignored. I fear that is what's happening in the Gulf Coast, one year after the BP Gulf oil spill.
Local community advocates tell me that their phones are ringing off the hook with calls from people who are sick and looking for help. Ecosystem restoration meetings on the Gulf coast have been overwhelmed by people testifying about health symptoms because it’s the only place they can be heard. Clean-up workers and community members are worried about an increase in unexplained symptoms such as rashes, chronic respiratory problems, fatigue, and headaches.
On March 3, 2011, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, in partnership with researchers from Tulane University, released the results of a health and economic impact survey of 954 people in coastal Louisiana gathered in interviews as researchers went door-to-door or met people in places like grocery stores between the end of July and the end of September 2010. The findings of this survey describe communities struggling with the impacts of the BP oil spill disaster.
- Almost three-quarters (72%) of respondents who reported that they were exposed to oil or dispersant reported experiencing an abnormal increase in at least one symptom;
- The most common symptoms included: Cough (27%), eye irritation (23%), headache (26%), and sinus irritation (27%);
- Almost half of the respondents (46%) reported that they do not have health insurance.
NRDC also released an issue paper last week on 42 communities across the country affected by confirmed disease clusters. But there are hundred more communities that have reported high rates of health problems and don't qualify' as officially confirmed disease clusters. Trevor Schaefer, the 21 year old man who survived brain cancer at age 13 and who also testified in the Senate last Tuesday, talked about how upsetting it was when his small community was told by the Idaho health department that they "are statistically insignificant." The other time when community concerns sometimes get dismissed is when people are sick from a variety of illnesses, and especially from illnesses that don't necessarily allow for a clear diagnosis. It is really important that we not let this happen on the Gulf Coast.
There is currently no active government agency investigation of the Gulf Coast health concerns, or programs to help individuals get needed healthcare. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, which collected reports of health problems during the height of the spill, stopped publishing reports at the end of September. The result is that there are a lot of sick people, and people feel abandoned and overlooked in the rush to declare the oil spill over.
The communities and individuals who were on the front lines of the oil disaster deserve better. The following actions are urgently needed:
- Establishing a separate forum as part of the Gulf restoration process to address public health issues;
- Providing emergency and no-cost healthcare to hurting communities by:
- Adding a health services component to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) study of clean-up workers;
- Mobilizing emergency health clinic resources from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS);
- Expanding services from state and local clinics;
- Funding and creating independent community health fairs and clinics;
- Tracking oil-spill related symptoms and illnesses through state and federal registries to collect reports of oil-spill related symptoms from healthcare providers;
- Educating healthcare providers on oil-spill related health impacts;
- Providing resources for individuals to be assessed and get healthcare.
One year after the BP Gulf oil disaster, there are still serious unresolved health issues. However you define it - as a disease cluster, an epidemic, or as unexplained symptoms - the basic facts remain. People on the Gulf coast need help. A year after the oil spill, we need to remember the magnitude of what they suffered, and work to get them the healthcare they need.
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