Health study of BP oil spill under way

Workers check on oil skimmers containing oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Bay Jimmy near Venice, La., June 11, 2010. Photo credit AP.

Workers check on oil skimmers containing oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Bay Jimmy near Venice, La., June 11, 2010. Photo credit AP.

Originally published on nola.com

By Bill Barrow, The Times-Picayune

Federal researchers have a long way to go to collect the data and recruit the subjects necessary for what is billed as the largest, most significant study of human health effects ever attempted following an oil spill.

Dale Sandler, chief epidemiologist for the National Institutes of Health, said her agency has, after eight months of work, secured the participation of about 2,800 people who worked in various cleanup and response roles after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, causing the largest crude oil spill in American history.

That’s 5 percent of Sandler’s goal of attracting 55,000 participants, with the potential to track the health status of more than 20,000 of those people for a decade or longer.

Using records from training programs for cleanup workers, employment records from BP and their cleanup contractors, the Vessels of Opportunity program and other sources, researchers compiled a target list of 155,000 people. They began sending out letters and making telephone calls in February.

But there are complicating factors, Sandler said, from general distrust and “research fatigue” among the coastal community to outdated contact information and civil attorneys advising their clients not to participate.

Sandler recently concluded a four-day tour of the Louisiana-Mississippi coastline trying to drum up attention for her effort. Besides community meetings and engaging local public health authorities, she is asking anyone who did cleanup work or just took the safety training, without actually working, to volunteer for the study.

“We want them to call us, and we’ll keep trying to get to them,” she said. Separate studies, supported by NIH grants, are intended to assess health effects among Gulf Coast residents who did not necessarily have direct exposure to the oil or dispersant through cleanup jobs.

Sandler’s study targets residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, although Sandler recently extended eligibility to residents in eastern Texas. Residents interested in participating can call 855.NIH.GULF (855.644.4853) toll-free. Details are available online at www.nihgulfstudy.org.

Seeking scientific evidence

Fear of human health effects from the spill — driven in part by BP’s use of more than 1 million gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit at unprecedented depths under water — has angered concerned fishers and other coastal residents. Current circumstances feature anecdotal evidence of sick workers and Gulf Coast residents complaining of maladies — respiratory problems, in particular — that generally can be associated with organic compounds found in crude oil. Some scientists and physicians have weighed in with tests on samples of seafood, human blood and Gulf Coast soil that show elevated levels of some of the same toxins. But there has been a dearth of scientific evidence directly connecting illnesses to the oil or the dispersants.

Government officials have been unwilling to accept a direct causal effect but also unable to disprove it. President Barack Obama’s Oil Spill Commission said it was disturbed by the anecdotal evidence, but it left the issue to others in the January report on its investigation of the spill and its aftermath.

Sandler said she is working to design a study that draws the strongest possible corollaries, even if absolute causation is not possible to determine.

“I want to be able to say that workers who did this particular job are more likely to suffer this particular consequence,” she said….

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