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BP oil spill four years later: How the NIH is assessing its Gulf data (part 2)

Toxicologist Riki Ott comforted Lorrie Williams, a Gulf resident experiencing severe health effects following tth effects following the spill, at a meeting three years ago in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Toxicologist Riki Ott comforted Lorrie Williams, a Gulf resident experiencing severe health effects following tth effects following the spill, at a meeting three years ago in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

I believe it is the oil and not the unemployment. - Dr. Dale Sandler, epidemiologist and leader of GuLF Health Study, NIH

Today marks four years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisana, killing 11 workers and injuring many others as it spewed oil for 87 days.

Those who died following that explosion are: Gordon Jones, Blair Manuel, Stephen Curtis, Donald Clark, Jason Anderson, Karl Kleppinger, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, Adam Weise, Aaron Dale Burkeen and Roy Wyatt Kemp. The youngest was Weise at 24; the oldest Manuel, at 56. They came from three states: Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

Yesterday, I published part one of my conversation with Dr. Dale Sandler, an epidemiologist at the National Insitutes of Health (NIH) and principal investigator on the 10-year GuLF study that is examining health effects on the people of the region. These include anyone living directly in affected areas, as well as those who were working on the Vessels of Opportunity, BP-sponsored voyages that sought to contain the spill and which hired local workers, many of them rendered unemployed from the disaster.

Following is the second part of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

I am not sure how you are parsing out the mental health data from the physical illnesses, and also, how are you assessing the impacts of financial devastation?

Correct, if people are either sick from physical ailments or are worried they can’t pay bills or are out of work that could be …complicated. We are not doing mental health [assessments] to the exclusion of looking at … long-term respiratory disease, heart attacks, cancer. So what we can look at are symptoms of mental health. We started looking at symptoms of respiratory disease, and we started looking at symptoms in the community such as dizziness, nausea and weakness.

We assessed that, and we are going through it one by one and it will take us several more months to look at. I believe it is the oil and not the unemployment [that is making people sick]. [But, being unemployed] can influence who wants us to come to their home.

What have been the most extreme examples of mental health effects that you've observed to date? Has anyone wanted to kill themselves, such as occurred in Orange Beach, Alabama when Captain "Rookie"[Allen Kruse] committed suicide a few years back?

We’ve had a couple of instances like that gentleman, and whether it was financial problems or exposures [to oil and Corexit], where we have been talking to someone we were worried about and we had to call 911 and connect to suicide prevention. Those were isolated incidents, but they were upsetting to my team and were real signs of distress in some members of the community.

One of the things we're doing research-wise is using standardized scales. When we do our next clinical exams, we will focus more deeply on extreme problems; are people at risk for suicide? Eventually, we will be able to link to mortality [events and suicidal tendencies in the study, to the extent they may exist.]

How many such incidents have occurred?

More than one but not dozens.

Tell me about the Study. How many individuals have you seen and what's the next phase going to include?

We have studied 33,000 people, and completed phone interviews as to who is eligible for the next 12,000 of those repeat calls. A repeat call occurs to see if there is a change in their health. We repeat questions regarding symptoms, diagnose disease, discuss changes of lifestyle, smoking and drinking, and ask questions such as, 'Did your doctor tell you you had chronic pulmonary obstructed disease?'"

We will be doing this every two-to-three years, and we will do this with as many of the 33,000 as we can, including those 11,000 living in gulf communities where we did our home visits. We hope to complete these clinic exams [with all of them, and they will be held at] LSU and at University of Southern Alabama. We are just getting ready to launch. We will invite people to come in for a comprehensive exam that lasts about four hours, and icnludes looking at nuerological functions, collecting biological samples and more.

This begins in June.

How big is your staff and who goes out on these visits?

We have two clinics and each clinic has its own staff. I have not been going out personally on the home visits, but Ive been to the areas of the Gulf most affected and held town hall meetings.

[As to who goes out to the homes], it depends. [Sometimes two people go out], but we must be efficient, and to be efficient we have sometimes sent just one person, but they are able to measure lung function, take pressure, [and so forth]. That person is trained as a medical paraprofessional.

What are you primarily looking for now, and will there be another Media Day?

Don’t know if we’ll need Media Day. We did it [this month] because we’ve been sort of quiet, and we wanted to make sure people knew we were still here. We are in the second phase, second telephone calls with people, and it will be their second exam, in the clinic with people [that will define the second phase].

Our goal is that within six months there will be actual research papers in scientific literature shared with the community, the health department. Whether or not there will be something newsworthy, I don't [yet] know.

But you should hear more from us in about six months.

Bold marks and hyperlinks are those of the examiner's.

To read more about the GuLF Study, please click here.

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