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Federal Health Study of Gulf Oil Spill Started Too Slowly, Expert Tells AAAS Forum

A major study of worker health in the aftermath of the Gulf oil blowout got underway months later than desirable and may be limited as a result, a public health specialist told the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein, interim director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, said the federal government was unprepared to quickly mount studies of the possible long-term health effects of the 20 April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) study of more than 50,000 cleanup workers was not funded until six months after the blowout and researchers did not get into the field until January, Goldstein said. As a result, data on worker exposure to various chemicals will be hard to come by, he said, as will definitive answers about any oil-associated ailments among the workers.

Still, Goldstein said the impact of the spill over the longer term is more likely to involve mental and social health disruptions rather than the toxicological effect of various chemicals.

Goldstein spoke at a 5 May session on lessons from the Gulf oil blowout during the 36th annual Forum, the premiere Washington gathering for those interested in the intersection of science and policy. The 5-6 May event was attended by some 475 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education and business.

Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein

Other speakers at the session on the Gulf disaster were Christopher D’Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University; David Westerholm, director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration; and Michal Freedhoff, policy director for the office of U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts). Terry D. Garcia, executive vice president for mission programs at the National Geographic Society and a member of the presidential commission that investigated the spill, moderated the session.

While there were a series of health evaluations of workers in the first weeks of the Gulf cleanup, they focused on acute effects—headaches, dizziness, nausea, throat and eye irritation—of exposure to oil and dispersants. To track possible longer-term health consequences of exposure to chemicals such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Goldstein said, it is important for researchers to get reliable exposure data and information on pre-existing health conditions of the workers.

The NIEHS study is well-designed and involves excellent researchers, said Goldstein, former dean of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health and a former assistant administrator for research and development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the mid-1980s. But the delayed start challenges the ability of workers to recall their exposures, he said. Moreover, a standard method for measuring benzene exposure via binding of reaction products to hemoglobin in red blood cells was not an option, he said, because red blood cells live only four months in the body before being replenished.

While that is a fairly long period, Goldstein said, “It’s still not long enough for a study that doesn’t get into the field until January.” He also noted that measurements of biomarker metabolites of PAHs are likely to be confounded by worker exposure to other sources of PAHs, including summer barbecues.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the NIEHS study, Goldstein said he would be surprised if there are any serious long-term toxicological consequences from the blowout. He said benzene disperses quickly and was unlikely to have affected cleanup workers on shore, particularly since they were well-equipped with protective gear. It also is unlikely that residents of Gulf communities experienced exposures to benzene or other volatile organic hydrocarbons in amounts sufficient to cause concern about longer-term health effects such as cancer, he said.

More worrisome in both the short term and the longer term, Goldstein said, are the likely mental and social health consequences of the blowout. A researcher who studied the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound noted that the oil spilled into a “a social as well as a natural environment.” The same is true for the Gulf spill, Goldstein said

A major environmental accident can trigger adverse health effects in residents that include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and domestic violence. Workers whose families that have fished in local waters for generations can suddenly lose their livelihood. The prior trauma and lingering economic impact of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina further compounded matters in the Gulf, Goldstein said.

He called for more health studies in communities that already were under economic stress before the spill. “There are more individuals with poor health in disadvantaged communities,” he said, and those individuals “tend to be more susceptible to environmental pollutants.” Some of them already have underlying exposures to pollutants from industrial facilities that have been placed in their communities, he said.

While specialists are becoming more adept at predicting the public health consequences of disasters, including the social and cultural issues that affect health, “we have a long way to go,” Goldstein said.

As new energy initiatives are pursued, including extraction of natural gas from shale rock such as the Marcellus formation in the Appalachians, Goldstein urged more prospective attention to the health status of residents who might be affected by those activities.

Specialists will then be better able to say whether any claimed health impacts are real or simply statistical aberrations. “Unless we’ve done the exposure assessment upfront, unless we’re in there early,” Goldstein said, “we are not ready to be responsive.”

Goldstein, Dr. Howard J. Osofsky, head of the department of psychiatry at Louisiana State University, and Dr. Maureen Y. Lichtveld, head of the department of environmental health sciences at Tulane University, discussed the health aspects of the Gulf oil spill in a review article in The New England Journal of Medicine on 7 April 2011.


Christopher D’Elia (Download the MP3)


Michal Freedhoff (Download the MP3)


Terry D. Garcia (Download the MP3)


Bernard D. Goldstein (Download the MP3)


David Westerholm (Download the MP3)


Listen to audio recordings of the speakers at the session, “The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Scientific and Policy Perspectives.”

See the full program and presentation materials from the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

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Earl Lane