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Gina Solomon’s Blog

When a Community is Sick: Gulf Coast Illnesses One Year after the BP Oil Spill

Gina Solomon

Posted April 4, 2011 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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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:
    1. Adding a health services component to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) study of clean-up workers;
    2. Mobilizing emergency health clinic resources from the Federal Department of  Health and Human Services (HHS);
    3. Expanding services from state and local clinics;
    4. 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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Comments

Lorrie WilliamsApr 4 2011 10:30 PM

I am sick and have been sick for months,suffering from upper respiratory,sinus infections,In Feb I was treatred and was on antibiotics for a really bad sinus infection that caused me to lose my hearing in my left ear and while on the antibiotics The second bout of pneumonia.Now i have had Pneumonia since Dec,20,was rushed back to the hospital again on March 20,and the Pneumonia that i had in Dec has grown into a massive pneumonia in my left lung.When they did the xray they were so concerned to see it had not went away at all it had just grown. And thought CANCER so they did a Cat Scan they do not like what they see,so now they want me to go to a lung Dr,with what money i am a out of out fishermen.Now I am once again off antibiotics and the infection is still there ,heading back to the hospital again,because I have no money to go to the Dr's office any more.I have been on 12 rounds of antiboitics and 6 rounds of steroids,and it just keep coming back.When I return to the Hospital this time i am going to order them to keep me till they find every thing that is wrong with me.I have had VOC test and tested very high in BPs stuff.

Pamela J. WillitsApr 5 2011 05:09 PM

These illnesses, coupled with the recent rise in dolphin and sea turtle deaths being reported in the Gulf region, bring to light the real cost of the BP Oil spill.

Yet if you were to believe the BP Oil sponsored television ads, you'd think all has returned to normal in the Gulf and life is good once again. Does BP Oil not understand the concept of long term and far reaching side effects from chemical disasters?

Allowing BP Oil to sweep this under the rug would be tantamount to Japan trying to deny the long term health and environmental effects of their ongoing nuclear disaster.

S L DunlapApr 6 2011 06:11 AM

If America had a national health care plan then people would not have to go to this extent to be heard. Everyone is affraid because illness causes stress due to lack of money and lack of health care. It's horrid that the oil spill happened but the real issue is the health of Americans and the fear of lawsuits. I do not live in America, I have free health care and I would never be turned away for an illness that was caused by an environmental disaster and because my government pays for my healthcare they would be very interested in getting to the bottom of any disaster that affects the very people they care for.

Rob CoulonApr 6 2011 07:14 AM

Thank you Dr. Solomon. I hope this is message is heard loud and clear.

Yasmine Van WiltApr 6 2011 11:27 AM

Thanks for posting this article! An important piece in the growing cannon of Gulf medical literature. We are a long way from reaching your outlined goals, but I do hope, with increasing media coverage and new published academic and professional documents, our aim to help those who suffer as a result of oil-dispersant exposure will be attainable. As an affected Gulf citizen, I hope-nay pray our homeland will heal.

Nancy BoulicaultApr 6 2011 01:20 PM

I can only second S. L. Dunlop
If ever there has been a case for the need for a public health strategy/program, this is it. If only we had rid ourselves of the destructive private health system in the US and instituted Medicare for All, we would have been able to address this problem efficiently and effectively.

As it is the people of the Gulf Coast will need everyone to fight for them every step of the way.

GD BlankenshipApr 7 2011 11:10 PM

The chemicals in the gulf are breaking down body. Not to mention the damage that the "oil eating" bacteria is also doing. {Check out Craig Venter's synthetic bacteria creation) The body once weakened by toxins becomes host to harmful bacteria and viruses. The doctors are trained in Medical Schools that receive pharmaceutical research and grant money. Some of these same companies are involved in more chemicals than pharmaceuticals, and the pharmas are not designed to detox the bodies, but rather add more synthetic chemicals, although often necessary. The bodies are already toxin overloaded and need detoxed. It will be a matter of chronic sickness, death, or detoxification that may never see full recoveries to former state of health. These people need help, starting with doctors that are trained in wholistic medicine, and toxin removal,(Naturopathic Doctors, good place to start), in conjunction with mainstream medicine. Problem is toxicology is a specialty that has many chemical company expert witness toxicologists and not so many toxicologists treating patients with no insurance. This toxin illness is more than fighting for health, it is fighting against every major chemical company in corporate America, and all the politicians and doctors that money can buy. NO, I am not a natural doctor, I am a chemically damaged man that experiences the sickness and subsequent alienation that often accompanies it.

Slashdot TwitterApr 9 2011 11:21 AM

Thank you for reporting on the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other efforts to determine the health impact of the BP drilling disaster. Thank you also for warning people about quack detox programs using nano silver pesticides.

I'm concerned, however, that the view that all the VOC have evaporated and are gone is wishful thinking and harmful. Wave action on freshly risen oil is a plausible mechanism for delivering VOC to gulf coast residents for decades. Air testing verified elevated VOC air concentrations, but I'm unaware of ongoing results. I've read that tar from the 30 year old Ixtoc spill still contains volatiles that can be smelled if you pick it up and break it. I know from visiting Dolphin Island last weekend that fresh oil continues to wash ashore around Mobile. I did not see much, but I imagine it is representative to the majority of BP oil that lurks as undersea plumes. Hexane, Toluene and other VOC are known toxins and carcinogens and should be part of air quality monitoring.

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