40% Of Residents Exposed To BP Gulf Oil Spill Suffer From Respitory Problems And Skin Lesions
Columbia University reports a survey of Gulf Coast residents exposed to the BP Gulf Oil Spill are suffering from a wide range of problems including a shocking 40% who report either respiratory or skin problems.
The survey, conducted by telephone in July after the Deepwater Horizon well was capped, found evidence of significant and potentially lasting impact of the disaster on the health, mental health, and economic fortunes of residents and their children and on the way they live their everyday lives. The findings have implications for health and economic policies going forward.
Among the key survey findings:
- Over 40% of adults living within ten miles of the coast said they have experienced direct exposure to the oil spill or clean-up effort. Within this group, nearly 40% reported physical symptoms of skin irritations and respiratory problems, which they attributed to the oil spill.
- Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.
- One in five households report a drop in income since the oil spill, and 8% report job loss. These losses were most likely to hit those who were already economically vulnerable: households with incomes under $25,000 a year.
- More than one-quarter (26.6%) of coastal residents said they thought they might have to move away from the Gulf Coast. Among those earning less then $25,000, the figure was 36.3%. Children whose parents think they may move are almost three times more likely to have mental health distress than are children whose parents do not expect to move.
- More than 70% of parents report children spending less time swimming, boating and playing in the sand; 21% say their kids are spending less overall time playing outdoors.
- Coastal residents had more favorable assessments and trust in their local and state officials and in the U.S. Coast Guard than they did in BP or other federal agencies.
- Slightly over half of all coastal residents felt that BP’s response was “poor,” and 41.3% said that the President’s response to the oil spill was poor.
“Over the last few days we are seeing an effort by officials who are suggesting that, as the oil is less visible on the surface, the ‘crisis is over.’ Clearly, this is far from the case,” says Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCPD) at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Children’s Health Fund (CHF). “As shown by our survey, done after the well was capped, there is a significant and persistent public health crisis underscored by the large number of children with medical and psychological problems related to the oil disaster. These concerns will need to be assessed and managed in these coastal communities where there are few or no pediatricians and vastly insufficient mental health professional capacity.”
The survey found a dramatic relationship between economic vulnerability and health effects. Adults with household incomes under $25,000 were by far the most likely to report physical and mental health effects for themselves and also among their children. “Much the way Hurricane Katrina had its greatest effect on those with the least, the oil spill is also having a greater impact on those coastal residents who are economically vulnerable, says David Abramson, PhD, MPH, director of Research at NCDP and assistant professor of clinical sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School. “In an area still recovering from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the oil spill represents a significant test of a population’s resiliency.”
Dr. Redlener, a pediatrician and professor at the Mailman School, outlined a number of implications for policymakers and others: “Guidelines need to be developed, with active participation of relevant federal agencies, with respect to the short- and long-term health risks of remaining in affected communities. This should include recommendations, based on known science, on when families would be advised to move out of the community entirely.” He also believes BP should provide funds to state and local agencies involved with providing assessment and care to affected families. “Children are particularly susceptible to the consequences of this disaster and need to have special resources focused on their needs.”
A Riki Ott, a well respected marine toxicologist who has recently stated that the conditions along the Gulf coast are so bad that “We need to start talking about who’s going to pay for evacuations”, first reported the break out of skin lesions caused by the BP Spill on the Huffington Post back in May.
When Ryan Heffernan, a volunteer with Emerald Coastkeeper, noticed a bag of oily debris floating off in Santa Rosa Sound, she ran up to BP’s HazMat-trained workers to ask if they would retrieve it.
“No, ma’am,” one replied politely. “We can’t go in the ocean. It’s contaminated.”
Ryan waded in and retrieved the bag. That was Wednesday, June 23, the first day visible oil hit Pensacola Beach. Ryan had been swimming off the beach the day before, as she said, “to get in my last swim before the oil hit.” The trouble is that not all of the oil coming ashore is visible. Dispersed oil – tiny bubbles of oil encased in chemical dispersants – are in the water column. On Thursday Ryan was treated at a local doctor’s office for skin rash on her legs.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Lots. For starters, Ryan’s story from Pensacola Beach is not an isolated incident. I have received emails and heard personal stories from Louisiana to Florida of people who have developed skin rashes and blisters from going in the ocean. People describe stings by “invisible jellyfish.” Turtle patrol volunteers who walk beaches daily write of blisters and bronchitis. And then there are individuals like Sheri Allen who took her dog for a walk on a beach in Mobile Bay in May.
Sheri wrote me that her “arms and legs were burning, even after the shower. The following morning … (there were) … small blood blisters. By evening the blisters had begun to welt. By the fourth day, the areas had got larger and swollen.” She went to see a doctor but the sores remain and they have begun to scar her arms and legs. For several days after Sherri’s incident, her husband found fish kills on the beach.
It’s not just skin rashes and blisters. At community forums, I commonly hear from adults and children with persistent coughs, stuffy sinuses, headaches, burning eyes, sore throats, ear bleeds, and fatigue. These symptoms are consistent across the four Gulf states that I have visited. Further, the symptoms of respiratory problems, central nervous system distress, and skin irritation are consistent with overexposure to crude oil through the two primary routes of exposure: inhalation and skin contact.
Most distressing to me are stories about sick children. “Dose plus host makes the poison,” I learned in toxicology. A small child is at risk of breathing a higher dose of contaminants per body weight than an adult. Children, pregnant women, people with compromised or stressed immune systems like cancer survivors and asthma sufferers, and African Americans are more at risk from oil and chemical exposure – the latter because they are prone to sickle cell anemia and 2-butoxyethanol can cause, or worsen, blood disorders.
Public officials have failed to sound an alarm about the public health threat because three federal agencies – DHHS, EPA, and OSHA – cannot find any unsafe levels of oil in air or water. Perhaps the federal air and water standards are not stringent enough to protect the public from oil pollution. Our federal laws are outdated and do not protect us from the toxic threat from oil – now widely recognized in the scientific and medical community
Project Gulf Impact, an independent group of citizen journalists working to expose the truth that the government is hiding, has also reported thousands in the Gulf are suffering from skin lesions caused by the BP Gulf Oil Spill.
Thousands in Gulf Suffer from Misdiagnosed Skin Lesions
Area residents have begun to show up at clinics and hospitals with mysterious scabs and pustules covering their extremities, as reported from residents to non-profit relief organizations in the Gulf.
One thirty-three year-old woman, who wished to remain anonymous, has disclosed to Project Gulf Impact that upon seeking medical advice at a clinic, she was told she had scabies. Hours later, she was told by an area hospital that she had a staph infection. The woman was treated with a shot of penicillin and Elimite cream, a topical agent for the treatment of scabies mite infestations, and an oral antibiotic. In addition to the lesions, the woman reported aching bones, weight loss, stomach pains, inflammation in her leg and sties developing in her eyes.
Other residents have shown up at local doctors and area hospitals reporting similar symptoms. According to area residents suffering from the mysterious rash, patients feel like they are not being given the proper medical treatment. Doctors have told area patients they are suffering from scabies with no clear diagnosis and from Staphylococcus infections with no underlying cause.
Exposure to chemicals, such as those being used to break down oil in the region, like the dispersant, Corexit, may be the cause of such infections. Corexit is an agent that has been proven to break down lipid membranes, which cover and protect human skin. Human skin is composed of a thin layer of lipids and Corexit, by nature, breaks down these organized barriers into smaller individual molecules allowing the barrier to become permeable to pathogens. The skin irritation could be caused by prolonged exposure to these chemicals and could break down the ability of the body to fight off infection.
Economic conditions in the Gulf have left many people without health insurance, leaving them with little recourse in terms of medical care.
Project Gulf Impact has launched its Health Information Line.
Gulf residents can leave messages relevant to reporting a health situation in the Gulf and people from around the world are invited to give offers of medical aid, provide essential information or be involved in the health and wellness efforts surround the Gulf crisis. Callers are not required to leave any personally identifiable information and can remain anonymous.
The Health Information Line is available at (504) 814-0283. Emails are also welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While many believe the break out of skin lesions in the Gulf may be attributed to BP’s use of the highly toxic dispersant Corexit, Jeffrey H. Toney the Dean of the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences at Kean University has warned us that the break out skin lesions may be due to high levels of arsenic in the Gulf which scientists warn is on the rise in the Gulf because of the spill.
Not surprisingly, wastewater generated from oil production can be quite toxic. An unappealing cocktail of toxins including heavy metals, this water contains high levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. Of particular concern is arsenic: such waste can contain up to one hundred thousand times the safe limit in drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency. About two liquid ounces of contaminated wastewater consumed by a 150 pound person in one day corresponds to a lethal dose.
British scientists recently conducted a study of the effect of crude oil on how ocean sediments can filter out toxic chemicals such as arsenic. They found that arsenic absorption within sediments is significantly reduced when exposed to oil. With the filtration system essentially shut down, arsenic can then be dispersed freely affecting the entire food chain, including us.
Potential dangers of arsenic-contaminated water are reminiscent of Bangladesh, with widespread reports of skin lesions and a higher incidence of cancer. Drinking water in Bangladesh is widely recognized as an environmental and public health nightmare, having poisoned up to 77 million residents, resulting from the widespread use of groundwater. Hand-pumped wells can access water containing extremely high levels of arsenic leached from rocks, not to mention contamination from mining and industrial production plants. Indeed, the World Health Organization has referred to this as “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.
Lessons learned from Bangladesh should guide us in the event that arsenic-laced waters begin washing ashore in the Gulf. A number of technologies were specifically developed for arsenic removal.