Gulf Oil-spill Workers Sought for Study

November 9, 2011

Federal researchers are looking for cleanup workers willing to participate in a $17.8 million study of long-term health effects from last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

They want to interview more than 50,000 cleanup workers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and have enrolled 5,000 since February. About 20,000 will be chosen for an in-home interview and periodic follow-ups over at least five years.

Researchers will also conduct some basic health tests on lung capacity and blood sugar. Study participants will be referred to doctors as needed.

“It’s very ambitious,” Dale Sandler, principal investigator on the study and chief of the epidemiology branch at the National Institute of Environment Health Sciences, told The Courier. “But this was also one of the largest oil spills ever, an unprecedented event, and it deserves this kind of research.”

The Gulf Long-term Followup study will focus on workers’ exposure to chemicals, track illnesses and examine lifestyle and seafood consumption.

“It’s been a challenging group to locate as they went back to their regular lives,” Sandler said. “When we do call them up, 80 percent of the time they want to be in the study, but there’s a large group of people we can’t find. We want to spread the word.”

Sandler said many people, both those who worked in the spill and those who lived on the Gulf Coast near the spill, are still worried about health impacts from exposure to oil and dispersants.

This study focuses on spill workers because they would have had the highest exposure, Sandler said.

“There are pockets of the community that are still afraid, and some people who aren’t feeling well and believe it has to do with the oil spill,” Sandler said.

Common post-spill ailments include breathing problems, repeated respiratory infections or worsening of chronic illnesses like asthma. Other reported problems include long-lasting skin rashes, stress, impaired liver function and immune systems and neurological symptoms.

Dr. Mike Robichaux of Raceland, La., who has been advocating for locals he says were sickened by the spill, said many of the coughs, memory loss, headaches and fatigue that workers first experienced seem to have dissipated. But more troubling neurological symptoms, including seizure-like episodes, have taken their place, he said. Workers are also experiencing severe abdominal pains.

Sandler said the study aims to get the data that could create a “causal link instead of just a coincidence.”

All study participants will be asked to complete a phone interview detailing oil-spill work, health, lifestyle and job history.

“We’re still hearing from individuals who are sick and believe it’s linked to the oil spill, but we need more evidence,” she said. “If we get the data we can say without any kind of hesitation that the people who did this oil-spill work or had more active exposure are the ones getting sick.”

Information from: The Courier

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