By Jennifer Larino, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on April 11, 2014 at 4:23 PM, updated April 11, 2014 at 4:25 PM
Researchers studying the health of nearly 33,000 people who did clean up work during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill say it’s still too early to tell what impact exposure to oil and dispersants will have on their bodies in the long-term. But early results show widespread symptoms of depression and anxiety. Researchers hope a second phase of more intensive health tests conducted over the next year will help paint a more detailed picture of the spill’s health impact.
Scientists with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on Friday (April 11) provided an update on the study, known as the Gulf Long-Term Follow-up Study, or GuLF STUDY, in a conference call with reporters. Researchers have enrolled close to 33,000 who were hired or volunteered for cleanup work since the study began in 2010. About 24 percent are Louisiana residents. In addition to more than 12,000 telephone interviews, researchers have completed in-home health screenings with 11,000 participants, collecting blood and home dust samples and doing basic blood pressure and diabetes screenings.
Dale Sandler, a principal investigator with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences epidemiology group and leader of the research effort, said early data show symptoms of depression are prevalent among cleanup workers. The study group reported symptoms at a rate 30 percent higher than other people in areas affected by the oil spill.
Sandler said the findings are “not a surprise” given the stressful and dirty work most cleanup workers were involved in. Most were residents of communities impacted by the spill, which prior research show are prone to higher rates of depression and anxiety, she said. Still she said there is no definitive link between the spill and mental and physical health problems. Sandler said her team is still gathering key data, including how much oil and dispersants each participant was exposed to. “It will be many years before we can know if the oil spill had an impact on the risk of developing chronic disease such as lung disease or cancer,” Sandler said.
BP, the owner of ill-fated Macondo well that was the source of the spill, responded to the early findings by underscoring its role in ensuring the health of and safety of cleanup responders. BP said in statement it collected 3,000 air monitoring samples evaluating dispersant and oil compound exposure in addition to providing training and protective equipment for each worker. “BP worked closely with OSHA, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other U.S. government agencies to take extraordinary measures to safeguard the health and safety of responders,” BP said.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences research team is now partnering with the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans and the University of South Alabama in Mobile to complete a second phase of the study, which includes in-depth research exams with some 4,000 participants within a 60-mile radius of each testing center. The research exams will include a battery of tests measuring proper lung and neurological function and heart health. In addition to blood and urine samples, researchers will use saliva samples to test for stress hormones. Participants will receive $150 for their time and additional funds for travel.
Sandler added participants who are found to have chronic diseases such as diabetes will be eligible to receive health care at the network of clinics being funded by the multibillion-dollar Deepwater Horizon Medical Benefits settlement. Sandler said a key hurdle moving forward is ensuring participants remain engaged in the study, which could last decades. “The issue of keeping people in Š is a very big challenge,” she said.
Sandler said being able to plug into cancer registries and scour other long-term data is key to getting a full picture of the health impact of the oil spill. She added long-term data prevents results from being skewed by economic or social factors – someone playing up their medical problems in order to get a bigger pay out from the settlement, for example.
She said her team is getting creative to make sure those who enrolled in the study keep in touch with researchers, in some cases going door-to-door to maintain contact with participants.
Special thanks to Richard Charter