New research undertaken by two leading US specialists on the health effects of oil spills has led to the publication of a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine, in which the authors make five recommendations, providing lessons for health effects of future oil spills. The first paragraph of the report claims that 50,000 workers were exposed during the Deepwater Horizon Spill and that they face serious psychiatric as well as physical symptoms in the future.
In their article "Lessons for Study of the Health Effects of Oil Spills", US specialists David A. Savitz, PhD from Brown University, Providence, RI and Lawrence S. Engel, PhD from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, state that "Each environmental disaster is unique, with health consequences that depend on the intersection of the event, the geographic setting, and the characteristics of the local population". In the case of Deepwater Horizon, they claim "the report by Rodríguez-Trigo and colleagues of health effects in fishermen who helped clean up the Prestige oil spill provides an opportunity to consider practices that will facilitate study of health effects among the 50 000 workers and others exposed during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and future incidents".
The research has led these two specialists to make five recommendations:
Recommendation 1: Collect exposure and medical histories from workers as early as possible.
Biological samples are critically important and should be collected as soon as possible, providing field data to help protect those in contact with an oil spill. The first in line for exposure are the clean-up workers and among these are volunteers who may not have received adequate training.
Recommendation 2: Conduct detailed exposure assessment.
Proper methods to assess exposure to oil spill hazards can be negatively affected by the urgency of needs to contain the oil spill itself, therefore it is important to draw up job-related matrices, providing also information on the usefulness of equipment and training
Recommendation 3: Consider a broad range of health issues.
The focus should be on the health effects of the spill, not just the oil itself. The report claims that the Prestige oil spill indicates that clean-up workers suffered long-term respiratory problems and chromosomal damage and recommendation 3 suggests for those responsible for the management of the Gulf of Mexico spill watch out for symptoms for diseases including Leukemia, multiple myeloma, and melanoma along with "evidence of genotoxicity and chromosomal damage". In the area of psychological disorders, domestic violence and mental health decline have been reported as consequences of previous spills.
Recommendation 4: Plan research to guide immediate public health interventions and advance science.
The communities involved in the spills should be provided with immediate information so as to assess healthcare needs and provide the corresponding services. If people are informed of the dangers of exposure to toxic substances, then work practices can be adjusted and exposure can be minimised. Finally, "Early data on the presence of elevated rates of acute psychiatric problems can be very valuable to those who provide health care services in the region".
Recommendation 5: Recognize and work within the political context.
"In the Deepwater Horizon spill, tension has already developed between the desire to fully investigate the health consequences of the spill and the desire to provide reassurance that will reinvigorate the region's tourism and seafood enterprises". For this reason all data must be disseminated in a scientific, objective manner because it will be used in litigation processes.
Research undertaken by:
David A. Savitz, PhD
Providence, RI 02912
Lawrence S. Engel, PhD
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
New York, NY 10065
Dr. Engel is an investigator on the planned GuLF Study, a National Institutes of Health-administered health study for oil spill clean-up workers and volunteers.
Source: Annals of internal medicine