BP Oil Disaster Two Years Later: Check-up on Health

It’s been two years since the BP oil disaster brought horrific scenes of oil slicks, dead wildlife, contaminated beaches, and devastated fishing communities into our living rooms.  But, for many people on the Gulf Coast, the nightmare continued long after the TV cameras left and the world stopped watching.  For the past two years, Gulf Coast communities have struggled to restore the Gulf and their lives.  At this second year check-up, in the face of mounting ecosystem damages, some progress has been made but there is much to be done to ensure the health of Gulf Coast communities.

Last year I outlined specific areas where additional science, testing, and assessment were sorely needed to get to the bottom of air quality, seafood safety, and worker and community health issues.  A year later, it’s time to check on the status of what’s been done.  See my previous blog for more background information.

Worker and Community Health

Health Services

The need for improved access to health care and specialists is still acute in Gulf Coast communities.  Local activists are working to get help for their families and neighbors.  Research studies can take years and it is essential that the health services network be expanded to better care for communities who are hurting now.

Health Studies 

A number of impressive studies are underway of workers (Gulf Long-term Follow-up or GuLF study) and communities (Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia) impacted by the BP oil disaster.  This research is essential to improving our understanding of the short- and long-term health impacts of this unprecedented disaster. At the same time, it is equally important that the impacted communities be involved in the research and that the findings are translated into resources that help individuals and communities heal. Community health surveys by groups, such as the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, speak to the urgent needs of Gulf communities and must be incorporated into larger efforts.

Seafood Safety

Seafood Testing

Finally, after more than a year of pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is data from metals testing in some Gulf seafood.  The limited data available shows elevated levels of two metals, nickel and vanadium, in oyster samples taken near the most contaminated areas.  This is consistent with what has been found after previous oil spills and the relative abundance of these metals in crude oil.  Ongoing testing, by FDA and NOAA, is needed to see if the less common (but more dangerous for human health) metals - including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury - will follow the same pattern and build up in Gulf seafood.  Regrettably, the most recent FDA data on other oil-spill related contaminants in coastal seafood is close to a year old and we lack a comprehensive picture of contaminant levels in Gulf seafood.  While there are some ongoing research studies, a comprehensive surveillance system is still lacking. 

Safety Assessments

The FDA is still relying on a safety assessment that is based on outdated science and fails to protect the most vulnerable populations.  Last fall my colleagues and I published a study in the scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives which found that FDA’s “safe levels” were not safe for vulnerable populations because they allowed up to 10,000 times too much cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination in Gulf seafood. Until FDA fixes this assessment, we remain concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood, particularly shrimp, for vulnerable populations – specifically pregnant women and children who eat a lot of Gulf seafood.

Health Protective Standards for Oil-Spill Contaminants in Seafood

The FDA still doesn’t have a consistent standard for assessing seafood safety after oil spills.  Last October we formally petitioned the FDA demanding that the agency recognize the hazards posed by PAHs in seafood and set a health protective standard but the FDA has not responded.

Air Quality

Investigating Odors

Communities are still waiting for a definitive report back from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with information on what caused the odors experienced by coastal communities.  This information is needed to inform studies looking at short and long-term health impacts among Gulf residents and clean-up workers.  The EPA must also use this information to design improved monitoring and emergency response programs that work with communities to better respond to future disasters. 

Air Quality Threat from Aerosol Pollution

There is now good science showing that there were additional air quality threats – mainly from aerosols (or tiny particles) that formed over the oil slick - beyond what was tested for in coastal communities during the spill.  This air pollution science needs to be incorporated into health impact studies and included in EPA’s revised oil spill response monitoring programs.

Improved Emergency Response and Monitoring Programs

The lessons learned from responding to the BP Oil Disaster have yet to be formally incorporated into revised air quality emergency response and monitoring programs.  At the same time, new drilling and pipeline projects put more communities at risk from oil-related disasters.  Comprehensive and revised federal guidelines from the EPA are needed to ensure that state and local agencies have the information and resources to properly respond.

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Anniversaries are also a time to remember.  On April 20th 2010, 11 workers lost their lives and an ecological disaster wrecked havoc on the communities of the Gulf Coast.  Let’s use this anniversary to commemorate what was lost, commit to healing what is broken, and work to ensure that this never happens again.