Editor’s Note: Nearly a year after the BP oil spill, people living along the Gulf of Mexico are still feeling the effect of the disaster, the largest oil catastrophe in history. To learn more about the spill’s health effects, Dr. Erin Marcus recently spoke with Dr. Gina Solomon, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Dr. Solomon was on the Louisiana coast during the oil spill, studying its environmental effects.
What health effects have been seen so far? What kinds of symptoms are residents experiencing?
A wide array of health concerns have been reported. The predominant complaint is dermal (skin rashes) such as eczema. Many (symptoms) are nonspecific: head?aches, confusion, memory problems, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma, persistent cough, bronchitis, complaints of gastro-intestinal symptoms, episo?dic diarrhea.
There have been a couple of well-publicized cases of people who have become very sick with health issues that have not been sorted out. These individual stories are flying and there’s public concern, but it’s hard to make clear links. We’re struggling to determine how much is related to the oil and how much is coincidence.
The other set of issues is that people are under immense psychological strain due to economic insecurity and the effect of the spill on the gulf seafood industry. People are hurting. This was already an area of the country with poor health coverage and poor access to health care. It’s greatly increased the level of worry about health problems. The psychosocial issues are huge — anxiety, depression, symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
What health effects do you anticipate will occur?
My biggest concern is for the workers who were offshore doing cleanup. Studies of past oil spills have shown chronic respiratory problems after the Exxon Valdez spill, and markers of DNA damage after a spill off the coast of Spain. It will be important to look for signs of chronic bronchitis and markers of DNA damage that could precipitate cancer or birth defects.
There are very well-documented psychological effects from oil spills both in clean-up workers and residents. This was documented after the Exxon Valdez spill. The psychological effects run the gamut from depression, to anxiety disorder, to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to higher rates of substance abuse and suicide and intimate partner violence. There already was an uptick in mental health issues after Katrina and this was a second hit. It’s not the same as the PTSD you see in war veterans with flashbacks – instead, [people suffer] sleep disorders and hyper-vigilance and inability to get the oil spill off their minds.
what is really fucked, is that situations like this highlight the decrepit state of our country's health care system. and so many people are unable to make that connection.