Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When disaster strikes

It’s been nearly seven months since one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, and still the Gulf Coast oil disaster has left us in very murky waters, not to mention leaving behind a number of ongoing health challenges.

Today’s special session on "The Public Health Implications of the Gulf Oil Disaster" featured public health leaders who worked directly on the recovery and clean-up efforts in the aftermath of the explosion of a BP oil rig last spring. The first-hand accounts and pictures of the scene reminded participants of the magnitude of the disaster and why Gulf Coast residents and recovery workers are still reeling.

John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, explained that there's not a whole lot known about the long-term health effects of crude oil. Even following the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, there was not much research done on the chronic health effects related to the spill. However, NIOSH is doing its part to lead efforts in ensuring worker safety and encouraging future research on this obvious knowledge gap.

Howard said a lesson learned after Sept. 11, 2001, was that there was no existing roster of workers that would allow health professionals to follow up on the possible health problems related to cleanup. So, NIOSH led efforts to develop a roster of workers responding to the recent Gulf Coast oil disaster, which includes 55,000 people. This roster is now available to researchers.

Alabama Health Officer Donald Williamson described the oil spill as “an event that had a cataclysmic economic impact on the state of Alabama and continues to have a lasting impact on the health and well-being of residents.” Research shows higher rates of reported depression and anxiety among residents, especially considering the economic impacts for fisherman and those whose livelihoods depend on tourism.

Despite seafood testing and other efforts used to determine which areas could be safely reopened to fishing, research has shown that the public is still wary about eating Gulf Coast seafood and restaurants avoid serving seafood from Gulf Coast suppliers.

Session presenters stressed that improved communication and health messaging is still needed to communicate the public health role in the Gulf Coast recovery and respond to misinformation.

— M.S.

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