THE BLOG
12/06/2010 10:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oil Spill Health Ailments Decline As Oil Is Weatherized

Health complaints from the BP spill waned this fall, but itchy rashes and headaches haven't completely disappeared. For uninsured Louisianans suffering from oil-related ills, medical services are available -- many of them established after Katrina. Affordable help for mental-health woes from job losses and other stresses exists too. And, health officials say, some residents may want to lend their medical experiences to future spill victims by participating in one of several institutional studies.

The state's reporting on health complaints dried up this fall, more than two months after BP's well ceased gushing. "Oil that remains in the water is weatherized and much less of a health threat than fresh oil was in the summer," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, medical director at the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals.

"Fresh oil contains benzene, toluene and other cancer-causing compounds," Guidry noted. "But since the oil stopped flowing in July and the cleanup continued in August and September, the number of health complaints -- including respiratory ailments and skin rashes -- has dropped since late September, and Louisiana and other Gulf States have stopped reporting them weekly."

As of Sept. 25, the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals reported 415 health complaints from exposure to pollutants and heat stress since the spill's late-April start. Of those, 329 involved oil and cleanup workers and 86 were from the general population. Symptoms included upper respiratory irritations, headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue. Eighteen oil and cleanup workers had short hospitalizations.

Spill-related ailments would have been higher if it hadn't been for training of oil and cleanup workers required by the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Guidry said. Throughout the spill, workers received instruction on how to avoid contact with oil and what to do if exposed.

In May, OSHA told BP and other spill-affected employers to provide training for specific jobs. For workers in contact with weathered oil and tar balls on the shoreline, a four-hour class was required. Employees with greater exposure to oil and those supervising cleanups took a 40-hour course that included safety-gear and environmental instruction.

During the spill, the medically-undeserved parish of Plaquemines needed extra help. "In the summer, the federal Dept. of Health and Human Services provided additional services in a mobile clinic in Plaquemines Parish," Guidry said. "As demand decreased, the federal clinic was demobilized and medical care was delivered by local resources." And BP contracted medical services for clean-up workers, he noted.

Last summer, West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero had ambulances stationed at key spots in Plaquemines Parish, waiting to take ailing, oil workers to the hospital. Taslin Alfonso, spokeswoman for West Jefferson Medical, said last week "we're no longer providing emergency medical services in Plaquemines in response to the oil spill, however. We pulled them out this fall."

Also in Plaquemines, an Ochsner Health Center opened in Belle Chasse in June, with two full-time physicians -- one in family medicine and one in primary care -- seeing patients Monday through Friday, according to Stafford Scott, spokesman for Ochsner Health System. The Belle Chasse clinic was planned long before the spill, he noted.

Guidry said residents with non-emergency conditions related to the spill can consult a list of 65 primary care and behavioral health clinics, including a mobile unit, in Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans Parishes, drawn up by GNO Community Health Clinics.

The Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals runs Louisiana Spirit, offering mental-health services to coastal parishes and those suffering from job losses or other spill-related troubles, Guidry said. "Through that program, we let people know that medical services in place since Katrina are available to them, even if they have no insurance. I want to stress that people need to ask about these services because they are there." Callers phoning Louisiana Spirit's hotline at 866-310-7977 can speak with counselors.

Federal programs, too, are available for health-related issues. Guidry said "we want residents to take advantage of Medicaid, and if needed, to apply for food stamps."

And, he said, "citizens interested in long-term, follow-up for possible health effects from the oil spill should participate in future research, conducted by academic centers working with U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, including the Institute of Medicine and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences." Those institutions and others are engaged in post-spill studies.

"Researchers designing the studies will probably include medical providers willing to follow patients" over the long term, said Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals. "The proposals are in progress," with more details to be announced, he said.

In early September, BP said it was providing $10 million to the National Institutes of Health under its Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GRI, to study "potential health issues" relating to the spill. The GRI is a ten-year, $500 million program established by BP to address the spill's effects.

BP in mid-August said it would give $52 million to federal and state health organizations for mental health and outreach programs across the Gulf. Of that, $15 million was allocated to the La. Dept of Health and Hospitals and $10 million to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The rest went to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Meanwhile, Ochsner Health System in the summer released its study on the mental-health impact of the oil spill, Scott said. That study, conducted by Market Dynamics Research Group, surveyed 406 residents 21 years or older in coastal areas in four Gulf states from June 25 to July 1. Findings were that young residents and those with lower incomes suffered the most psychological stress from spill. Of the four states examined, 18 percent of coastal Louisianans showed "probable serious mental illness" on a scale of psychological distress, with Alabama showing the least at 10 percent and Florida and Mississippi ranking between the two.

Scott said "physicians at the Ochsner Health Center in Belle Chasse have seen a number of patients with mental health issues related to job or income loss directly related to the spill." And he noted that the the volume of all patients served by that new facility is growing monthly.

This article was published in the Louisiana Weekly in the Nov. 29, 2010 edition.