11/29/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

BP Spill Workers Seek Care as Health Study Progresses

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Nov. 21, 2011 edition.

A multi-million-dollar study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, gauging impacts of the BP spill on cleanup workers, has so far enrolled 5,500 individuals--mostly from Gulf states. The federally funded NIEHS hopes to interview thousands more from a pool of 150,000 cleanup workers, and has searched for people to interview this fall. The study refers individuals to medical care but doesn't pay for it.

Critics say that worker health interviews, which started last February or some seven months after BP's
well was capped, should have begun sooner to uncover critical information. They also say that while Washington spends money on data collection for a long-term, scientific study, uninsured workers are struggling to find care for spill-related ailments. Unemployed workers and fishermen were among those hired to clean up BP oil last year, and many of them don't have health insurance.

Last week, NIEHS epidemiology branch chief Dale Sandler said the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study--funded by the National Institutes of Health which oversees NIEHS--should cost more than $30 million in its first five years. That will include the cost of finding and interviewing 55,000 workers, conducting more than 20,000 clinical exams, determining exposure to chemicals, doing more-detailed medical exams with some of the workers and monitoring for health changes over time. "We're planning to continue following these workers for ten or even twenty years," she said.

NIEHS has previously said that the spill workers' study, announced over a year ago by NIH, was funded at $17.8 million over five years, including $6 million from BP. Meanwhile, a separate, five-year, general-population-based health study, announced this past July by NIH, is funded at $25.2 million and includes $3.2 million from BP.

Sandler said that of the more that 5,500 cleanup workers enrolled in the study to date, about 90% are from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. And in 1,000 home visits and clinical exams conducted in the study to date, over 80% of the individuals are from communities directly affected by the spill.

Sandler said "as part of the study, participants will be given a medical assessment, and referred to local doctors and clinics that provide medical and mental health care at free or reduced costs if they need it." She said "over time, the study will generate data that may help inform policy decisions on health care and services in the region."

Referrals are useful but getting low-cost medical care on the Gulf Coast isn't as easy as it sounds. Chemist Wilma Subra, head of Subra Company, an environmental consulting firm with a lab in New Iberia, La., said "while there are a number of free or reduced-cost clinics along the coast--receiving state and federal, as well as foundation resources--most or all of these clinics are overburdened with patients. These clinics are also not equipped with doctors trained in toxic chemical exposure." Subra received Global Exchange's 2011 Human Rights Award for her continuing work on the BP spill and communities affected by it.

Subra isn't knocking the usefulness of the NIEHS study but worries that it collects information from workers without addressing their medical needs. Former state senator Dr. Mike Robichaux, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Raceland, La., agrees. He has been treating people affected by the spill. Robichaux said at a post-spill meeting in Montegut, La.--attended by the NIH and scientists discussing the NIEHS workers' study--he stood up and asked "while millions are spent over a five-year period on studies, what's going to be done about the scores of very ill patients that I'm seeing in the meantime?"

Last week, Robichaux said "delays in the study prevented it from capturing initial worker symptoms so that they could be contrasted with problems being experienced today." The spill ended in July 2010, and NIEHS's first surveys began in February 2011. Today, some 16 months after the spill, the NIEHS is still looking for cleanup workers to interview by liaising with groups on the coast. A Nov. 9 meeting was held for cleanup workers and volunteers in Chauvin, La., and another meeting was held that day for Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish seafood leaders and employers to locate cleanup workers.

As for worker ailments, Robichaux said "most of the spill-related problems with cough, skin rashes et cetera have improved. But the neurological problems that people have been experiencing have actually gotten worse."

He continued, saying "after seeing a large number of spill-related patients and treating their less serious problems, I found myself with a potpourri of what appear to be neuroendocrine disorders that have been difficult to treat." Neuroendocrine ailments relate to the body's dual control of the nervous system and hormones. "I have seen several patients who have no positive laboratory or X-ray abnormalities, but who are actually paralyzed," he said. Robichaux also said that, to the best of his knowledge, other doctors attending to the same group of patients have been unable to manage their health problems.

But he said that a detoxification program that he's running from his home in Raceland to remove neurotoxins from the body's fat stores has met with success.

Dr. Robichaux said he has treated a handful of insured patients who have spill ailments. "Otherwise, the majority of these victims were seen after office hours or on weekends, and no charges were levied. I've drawn blood on about 80 patients for chemicals related to the spill, and in all of these cases the work was performed pro bono."

He also said many of the patients have not received regular, followup care because they live far from his office--sometimes out of state--or lack transportation. "Some local residents can't make it to our treatment center because they can't afford the gas," he said. "They're unable to work because of their illnesses."

Dr. Robichaux uses a detoxification program that includes exercise, saunas, vitamins and mineral supplements, along with niacin to promote sweating. "We have just completed our first wave of treatment, and the results are very encouraging," he said. Within the next two months, he plans to announce what some of his patients have accomplished.

Subra, a technical adviser to Louisiana Environmental Action Network in Baton Rouge, said since the spill LEAN has asked people with related health symptoms to fill out survey forms so that the event's effects can be better understood. LEAN's survey results will be used to demonstrate the need for more care providers and facilities treating illnesses from chemical exposures. "LEAN has collected around 150 health surveys, and a very large number of people have reported their health impacts directly to Marylee Orr and myself," Subra said. Marylee Orr is LEAN's executive director. "We continue to receive phone calls on a daily basis concerning severe health impacts," Subra also said.

Subra has given a number of presentations in the past year on the spill's health impacts, and LEAN will report the results of its health surveys shortly, she said.

Ken Pastorick, spokesman for the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals, said from late May to late September 2010, the DHH recorded 415 health complaints thought to be related to oil spill pollutants or heat stress from working near the spill. Of those, 329 reports were from workers and 86 were from the general population. Symptoms included headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fatigue and upper respiratory irritations. Eighteen workers had short hospitalizations. The general population's complaints were mainly related to odors.

Pastorick said "the state's last oil-spill surveillance report on health complaints was completed on Sept. 25 of last year. As the risk of exposure diminished, the number of complaints declined, and Louisiana along with the other Gulf states decided to discontinue surveillance." Since then, the DHH has received another six spill-related complaints about workers, and they were self-reported or reported by health-care providers, hospitals or the Louisiana Poison Center's 24-hour hotline. DHH refers cleanup workers who feel their health was impacted by the BP spill to the NIEHS, he said. And if people have symptoms, DHH and the Poison Center recommend that they seek medical attention.

Avis Gray, state Dept. of Health and Hospitals public health administrator for Region 1, covering Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, said "NIEHS has met with us a number of times in the last year to let us know about their study." DHH provided information on the coastal population and healthcare providers. "NIEHS is talking with all the local players and we're among them, as are Tulane and other universities along the Gulf Coast," she said. "Our discussions are an ongoing, fluid process."

NIEHS has been involved in the BP spill from the start of the disaster, Sandler said, adding "we gave safety training to more than 150,000 clean-up workers."

But Subra pointed to some of the problems with safety from the get-go. "Cleanup workers employed by BP were told not to wear respirators and could be fired if they wore them," she said. Respirator use, it seems, would have been acknowledgment that the air near the spill was full of pollutants, and it would have been caught on camera, while BP was facing litigation from many corners. -end-