Health Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill: JAMA Commentary

Today the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a Commentary on the health effects of the Gulf oil spill that I wrote along with my colleague Sarah Janssen, who is also a physician and specialist in occupational and environmental medicine at UCSF and NRDC. Our goal was two-fold: (1) to help alert Gulf coast health care providers to the main issues they should be aware of in their communities; and (2) to try to learn from history by summarizing the existing science on oil spill health effects.

The article is available free on the JAMA website in PDF form here.

My colleagues and I have been working for months, collecting information and stories on the ground in the Gulf and also analyzing data from EPA, BP, NOAA, and other agencies as it becomes publicly available. We also exhaustively searched the existing scientific literature, including tracking down unpublished studies that might help shed light on what is going on in the Gulf.

We identified four main health hazards associated with the oil spill: (1) vapors from oil chemicals and dispersants in the air, (2) skin damage from direct contact with tar balls or contaminated water, (3) potential cancer or other long-term health risks from consumption of contaminated seafood, and (4) mental health problems of depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior due to stress.

One piece of good news is that the air quality is improving now that the hole is plugged, and we're hoping that there will be no long-term respiratory effects, but it's too soon to know that for sure. We are continuing to track and update air quality information for the Gulf coast each week here.

Seafood safety is probably our biggest concern right now with the new fishery reopenings. The shrimp season opened today, and people want to know if it's safe. I honestly don't know if it's safe or not, since the agencies haven't been making all of their data public; the most serious concerns are for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children, and subsistence fish consumers. We are submitting formal letters to NOAA and the FDA tomorrow asking for the FDA to fix flaws in its seafood risk assessment, and for NOAA and FDA to make all their data on seafood safety (not just some of it) publicly available.

An unexpected finding from the research we did for the JAMA article was how little research had been done on prior oil spills. The scientific literature is downright threadbare in this important area. It's essential that we get it right this time and do the necessary health studies to document any effects. Tomorrow, NIEHS will be announcing their ambitious Gulf Worker's Study in a Webinar at noon Central time. That study will provide lots of information on short-term and possible long-term health issues. There are also plans for studies of pregnant women and children in Gulf coast communities. It is critical that these reasearch studies get done. We can't squander the opportunity to learn some useful lessons from this Gulf disaster - let's do the research and get the science and health information this time. I hope there will be no 'next time', but if there is, we need to be prepared.