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Still Ill from the BP Spill

Gulf Communities are reporting numerous cases of sickness related to the BP oil drilling disaster, but lack access to appropriate diagnosis or treatment

Over a year and a half since the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in the dumping of 170 million gallons of crude oil and 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the Gulf Coast, many of the urgent health impacts of the disaster are neither understood nor addressed.  In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a ten-year study of 55,000 individuals who worked and volunteered to clean up the oil that leaked into the ocean for 86 days. The study will analyze the health effects of exposure to crude oil and dispersants on the workers. However, while respectable and participatory, the study neglects a key party harmed by the BP disaster—coastal residents themselves.

These victims—who live near the bayous and Gulf waterways, swam in the oceans, ate contaminated seafood, lived and worked on barges, or merely washed the clothing of clean-up workers—were all exposed to enormous amounts of dangerous chemicals, but their needs are going unaddressed. Meanwhile, growing numbers of individuals are experiencing mental health issues because of the stress and anxiety caused by the disaster, in part due to loss of livelihoods. 

Last year’s Gulf crisis caused innumerable immediate health concerns for thousands; still, the long-term health effects are currently unknown. These effects—ranging from respiratory problems to blood disorders—can take years to manifest. Worse yet, without the treatment and testing necessary to link these cases to oil exposure, these effects will not be properly attributed as consequences of the oil disaster. Therefore its victims—a large majority of whom are uninsured or on Medicaid—will bear the costly burden of medical testing and treatment. (See “State Data”, U.S. Dep’t. of Health and Human Services: Health Resources and Services Administration, http://bphc.hrsa.gov/healthcenterdatastatistics/statedata/index.html.)

Nowhere to Turn

In this context, people currently experiencing skin rashes and respiratory problems—known to be health consequences of oil exposure—find themselves without options. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, was set for individuals and business to file claims for damages incurred due to the disaster,