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An oil spill cleanup boat is beached by the surf.

Oil-spill cleanup workers are swamped by a wave in Orange Beach, Alabama, in 2010.

Photograph by Tyrone Turner, National Geographic

Anne Casselman

for National Geographic News

Published April 20, 2011

Health issues that continue to plague Gulf Coast communities may be connected to the Gulf oil spill, experts say.

A year after the BP disaster, more people are reporting medical and mental health problems to nonprofits and doctors working in coastal areas. (Get more Gulf oil spill anniversary news.)

"We're seeing patients who will come in and say my nose is bleeding all the time, my cough gets worse," said James Diaz, director of the environmental and occupational health sciences program at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

Itchy eyes, water eyes, nosebleeds, wheezing, sneezing, and coughing are all symptoms of exposure to crude oil, Diaz said. "We are seeing a lot of that.

(Explore a human-body interactive.)

"We know a lot about the acute health effects of the compounds in petroleum because it's a major industry here," he said.

And these problems have "been very very predictable."

Day and night, Marylee Orr fields calls from cleanup workers, fishers, and their wives as they connect the dots between their health and exposure to dispersants and crude oil. More than 1.8 million gallons (6.8 million liters) of dispersants—chemical agents used to break up oil—were dumped into the Gulf.

"If you look at the human health effects of the . . . dispersant, everything you read at the beginning [of] that factsheet is what I hear over the phone: chest pain, respiratory problems, dizziness, gastrointestinal problems," said Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, based in Baton Rouge.

"I would love to be able to say everything's OK and everything's recovered—but it's not that way yet."

"Unusual" Spike in Health Troubles After Spill

In the early months of the Gulf oil spill, more than 376 people in Louisiana—the majority of whom were cleanup workers—reported acute health effects typical of exposure to crude oil: headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cough, respiratory distress, and chest pain, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

By early September, more than 2,100 acute health complaints related to the spill across the Gulf and elsewhere had come in, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

A health survey of nearly a thousand coastal residents conducted by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a health-justice nonprofit based in New Orleans, found that nearly three-quarters of those who believed they'd been exposed to crude oil experienced an "unusual increase in health symptoms."

In two other surveys of Gulf coast residents also conducted by university public health researchers and sociologists, between 35 to 60 percent of respondents reported experiencing mental stress and physical symptoms.

By August, 52,000 people were participating in the oil-spill cleanup, which was managed by a joint federal-industry response team. However the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences didn't secure funding to start a long-term study of cleanup workers' health until several months after the spill began.

"The hardest things to predict are going to be what's going to happen years and decades away," Diaz said.

"We should be looking for evidence that exposure to these chemicals is causing damage at the chemical level to enzymes and causing damage at the molecular level to DNA."

(Get a genetics overview.)

For instance, a study of cleanup workers from the 2002 Prestige oil spill in Spain found increased DNA damage, especially among those who worked along beaches. Such genetic changes can sometimes lead to cancer.

"We know the famous adage: The dose determines the poison," Diaz said.

He added he's most concerned for Gulf cleanup workers who worked offshore, where they were exposed to raining dispersant and fumes billowing off floating mats of burning crude.

(Also see "3 Surprising Ways Global Warming Could Make You Sick.")

Oil Spill Created Anxiety, Depression

Preliminary research has also found Gulf residents have suffered psychological trauma. Already, two spill-related suicides have occurred.

"What we're finding is that there are increases in symptoms of post-traumatic stress, generalized anxiety disorder, and of depression," said Howard Osofsky, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Louisiana State University in New Orleans.

Osofsky is currently leading a study of residents in Louisiana's four most heavily impacted parishes for the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

Calls to mental health and domestic violence hotlines in the Gulf area have increased since the spill began. Admissions to women's shelters also have risen, Osofsky noted.

The majority of people in Osofsky's surveillance area have reported tiredness; lack of energy;  trouble sleeping; headaches; pain in their arms, legs, joints; stomach pain; and other gastrointestinal symptoms.

"These are the types of symptoms that can be related to anxiety and stress, but they can be medical symptoms that can be directly related to oil [exposure] as well," he said.

The same trend is appearing in Alabama and Florida, according to a February study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers compared the mental health of two Gulf communities, one in Alabama where the oil reached, and another in Florida that stayed oil-free.

"People in both communities displayed a significant amount of both anxiety and depression," said study leader Lynn Grattan, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

"But it's economic impact—rather than oil reaching shores—which disrupted psychological adjustment and led to psychological health problems."

In other words, the mental health toll of the oil spill reached beyond the population living near oiled beaches, the study found.

Gulf Residents Already Resilient to Tragedy

However, Gulf residents' ability to cope in the face of past disasters—such as hurricanes—may help them weather this storm as well, Osofsky said.

(See "Gulf Wracked By Katrina's Latest Legacy—Disease, Poisons, Mold.")

"Individuals who've been able to cope may feel that they have greater strength, almost like they're being inoculated by their experiences to have inner strength."

University of Maryland's Grattan is currently studying how resilient people adapt and manage stresses associated with the spill.

"So perhaps in future we can learn from their adaptive behaviors and help build and facilitate the coping and adaption of everyone after spills," Grattan said.

Louisiana Environmental Action Network's Orr draws strength and hope from her community.

"It's not surprising that we're seeing what we are, because we've never had anything like this before," she said. "But we're resourceful people and we're very optimistic people.

After the double whammies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008, "this is our third environmental disaster and, we hope, our last."

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