Making the Health and Safety of Gulf Coast Residents and Responders a Top Priority

06/23/2010 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In her post on June 18, Representative Carolyn Maloney pointed out an important lesson of disaster response: protecting the health of responders must be just as high a priority as reacting to the disaster itself.

The U.S. Government is doing everything we can to ensure the health and safety of the response workers and residents on the Gulf Coast. And we're working with state and local governments to make sure that our monitoring and response efforts are comprehensive, effective, and based on the best science.

Here's an overview of what we're doing.

In the Gulf area today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are monitoring the air over water and land to detect potentially harmful levels of the chemicals associated with both oil and dispersants. But air monitoring represents only one way of determining if the health of responders or residents is threatened. That's why we're also conducting surveillance of health complaints and medical evaluation of symptoms and illnesses.

Every day, CDC is monitoring health symptoms, injuries, and illnesses that could be related to oil response work and ensuring that those reports are being evaluated by safety and health professionals, not just by BP. CDC is also going to conduct systematic reviews of health data to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent harm. Already, CDC is conducting health surveillance at 60 poison control centers and 86 health care facilities, and is using data from the Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi state health departments to make sure workers and residents are safe.

To date, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also administered surveys to 15,000 workers so that we can compile a roster of individuals involved in the response. An accurate record of who's participating in the response is vital to establishing any links between health and work exposures. Through its Health Hazard Evaluation Program, NIOSH is also assessing exposures among responders working on vessels at the source of the spill and those involved in burning, booming, skimming, shoreline cleanup, wildlife cleaning, and waste oil management.

Our surveillance and health evaluation efforts are based on our expertise in disaster response. But as any scientist will tell you, any major disaster presents unique challenges. That's why Secretary Sebelius has asked the Institute of Medicine to convene outside experts and help determine the most effective methods for protecting responders and residents. I am here at the Institute of Medicine Workshop being held in New Orleans -- and we're looking forward to the findings from the two-day meeting.

We know that in many ways this work is just beginning. But we also know this: the health and safety of Gulf Coast residents and responders must remain a top priority throughout the recovery effort. Working with health professionals, scientists, and our partners from across government, we're going to make sure that happens.