Health Data Gaps in the Gulf: Communities Need More Information on Threats

At the end of May, I spent three days in Louisiana meeting with community members and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials about health concerns associated with the Gulf oil disaster.  Being there, seeing what’s going on, and talking to folks on the ground was eye-opening and also devastating.

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From the catch in the fisherman’s throat as he talked about the destruction he has witnessed, to the weary face and bloodshot eyes of the EPA official who clearly hadn’t gotten much sleep -- it was clear the folks working on the frontlines were being slammed with a disaster beyond the scope of anything I could have ever imagined.

Also troubling to me as a scientist was the fact that the stories I was hearing in these meetings – told by the community members and the government – didn’t line up.  The folks living and working along the impacted shorelines had complaints and worries about the air they were breathing.  But at the same time, EPA officials showed me the complex equipment they were using to monitor the air and indicated their measurements showed that everything was “normal.” 

 This disconnect tells me that there are some gaps in the monitoring network and after doing some digging, here’s what I found:

Odor and Health Complaints

Similar to what my colleagues have reported in other posts, I heard complaints of odors and health effects consistent with exposures to the fumes that come from an oil spill.  This included a “gas-station smell” and health impacts like headache, nausea, and eye and throat irritation. However, when I spoke to the EPA agency officials in charge of the air quality monitoring effort in these communities, they were unable to show me examples of any monitoring that had been conducted to respond to complaints. 

Protecting Clean-up Workers

The fishermen I spoke to were very worried about their health and the long-term effects of being out over the oil day after day.  They reported that some of their colleagues had already gotten sick and the news that seven fishermen were airlifted to the hospital on May 26th spread rapidly from boat to boat. However, almost no data on the conditions these fishermen are experiencing has been made public. EPA officials assured me that BP was out there testing the air where the workers are. Given the degree to which BP has systematically underestimated the scope of this disaster – and continuing reports that they’re not supplying these workers proper safety gear as it is – neither I nor the workers I talked to found this very comforting.


Hardworking EPA scientists took me on a tour in their mobile laboratory (the Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzers (TAGA), bus) and graciously showed me the results of their testing. 

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However, at the time of the tour, the scientists were not allowed to tell me what compounds they were testing for, so we couldn’t verify they’re looking out for all of the toxic chemicals we’re concerned about. And although they were doing the testing to measure the impacts of the dispersants, they didn’t know where the dispersants had been applied or whether their route that day was even close to the area Image removed.

most likely to be impacted by the dispersants.  This information was not being provided to the EPA. Why so much secrecy? We can’t protect people unless we know these critical details.

Our laws governing toxic chemicals protect chemical companies at the expense of people’s health.  For more information on what needs to be done to fix these laws, see my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon’s blog. In the meantime, the Gulf Coast communities need real data on the health risks of the dispersant chemicals and where it’s being applied.

Monitoring stations

I got an up close look at the monitoring stations EPA is using to monitor the air quality in Louisiana. 

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These six stations (three in the Venice area and four in St. Bernard Parish extending east from Chalmette) are a great start, but alone they are not up to the task at hand.  First, no one appears to have done (or be doing) an assessment of wind patterns to figure out whether these monitoring stations are capturing the areas most impacted by the fumes from the oil.  Second, their monitoring is missing a class of chemicals that can evaporate from the weathered oil (semi-volatile compounds or SVOCs) and lead to both odor complaints and long-term health effects like cancer.


The good news (and with BP’s oil containment schemes continuing to fail, we need some good news) is that these gaps in the monitoring network can be fixed and EPA can work with communities to ensure that the health threats faced by residents and fisherman are eliminated.  To accomplish this, we’re asking EPA to do the following:

  • Improve response to community complaints (follow up with testing)
  • Expand monitoring to include Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs)
  • Monitor wind patterns to estimate  the most impacted areas
  • Obtain data on pollutant releases
  • Ensure public disclosure of monitoring data
  • Communicate monitoring results effectively

Good information is key to ensuring public health and Gulf Coast communities urgently need comprehensive air quality monitoring for their protection.

I’m hoping the discussions with EPA will be ongoing and they need to hear more from folks on the ground.  If you have thoughts, ideas, or concerns about EPA’s monitoring, or air quality in general, please post them so we can continue this conversation and get the officials the information they need to get this right.

If you’re interested in learning more about EPA’s air quality monitoring, here are a few resources: