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Still Ill from the BP Spill

Gulf Communities are reporting numerous cases of sickness related to the BP oil drilling disaster, but lack access to appropriate diagnosis or treatment

Over a year and a half since the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in the dumping of 170 million gallons of crude oil and 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf Coast, many of the urgent health impacts of the disaster are neither understood nor addressed.  In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a ten-year study of 55,000 individuals who worked and volunteered to clean up the oil that leaked into the ocean for 86 days. The study will analyze the health effects of exposure to crude oil and dispersants on the workers. However, while respectable and participatory, the study neglects a key party harmed by the BP disaster—coastal residents themselves.

These victims—who live near the bayous and Gulf waterways, swam in the oceans, ate contaminated seafood, lived and worked on barges, or merely washed the clothing of clean-up workers—were all exposed to enormous amounts of dangerous chemicals, but their needs are going unaddressed. Meanwhile, growing numbers of individuals are experiencing mental health issues because of the stress and anxiety caused by the disaster, in part due to loss of livelihoods. 

Last year’s Gulf crisis caused innumerable immediate health concerns for thousands; still, the long-term health effects are currently unknown. These effects—ranging from respiratory problems to blood disorders—can take years to manifest. Worse yet, without the treatment and testing necessary to link these cases to oil exposure, these effects will not be properly attributed as consequences of the oil disaster. Therefore its victims—a large majority of whom are uninsured or on Medicaid—will bear the costly burden of medical testing and treatment. (See “State Data”, U.S. Dep’t. of Health and Human Services: Health Resources and Services Administration, http://bphc.hrsa.gov/healthcenterdatastatistics/statedata/index.html.)

Nowhere to Turn

In this context, people currently experiencing skin rashes and respiratory problems—known to be health consequences of oil exposure—find themselves without options. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, was set for individuals and business to file claims for damages incurred due to the disaster, but it has disbursed less than a fourth of the $20 billion available. (See http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/19/nation/la-na-gulf-spill-claims-20110419.)

Recently, the media erroneously reported that Feinberg had not received any health claims. A later story confirmed that health claims are being presented, but have been categorically rejected. The Claims Facility reportedly received “a couple hundred” health claims, but has refused to compensate victims without documented links between oil exposure and health effects. Based on the above-mentioned gap in documentation, diagnosis, subsequent linkage and treatment, sick people are effectively barred from meeting these unrealistic requirements and accessing the desperately needed resources. 

A Community-based Response

Facing a lack of reliable and independent quantitative data on the scope of the impact, community organizations and local professionals have taken the lead to both document and treat the impact on their neighbors. One community-based survey, conducted by Louisiana Bucket Brigades in the summer of 2010, made clear that within months of the disaster there had already been an increase in the “sudden and severe” onset of “patterns of symptoms” associated with exposure to oil. (See, e.g., The BP Oil Disaster: Results from a Health and Economic Impact Survey in Four Coastal Louisiana Parishes, Louisiana Bucket Brigades, July 26-Oct. 1, 2010, which found that nearly 500 Louisiana residents out of 954 surveyed experienced an unusual increase in coughing, skin and eye irritation, and headaches following the BP disaster). Unfortunately, doctors and health professionals in the region do not have the appropriate resources, support or training to offer appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

It’s time for BP and the Administration to support coastal communities in their efforts to provide treatment to impacted communities. The BP oil disaster has only exacerbated the historical inadequacies that people in the Gulf were already experiencing on a daily basis. In addition to long-term studies, coastal residents need responsive, comprehensive, accessible and affordable treatment; and they need it NOW.

(Mary Beth Gallagher, Salvador Sarmiento and Lisa Lederberger, of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, co-wrote this. In June 2010 and 2011, the RFK Center carried out delegations to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, hosted by RFK Human Rights Laureate and Executive Director of the New Orleans-based Alliance Institute, Stephen Bradberry, to assess the health impact of the BP oil disaster.)