News & AnalysisGulf Oil Spill

Ten Months After Deepwater Horizon, Picking Up the Remnants of Health Data

Science  11 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6022, pp. 1252
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6022.1252

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Summary

On 28 February, after 10 months of hearing anecdotal stories of flulike symptoms, rashes, heat stroke, and stress from cleanup workers in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the long-awaited Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The largest, most comprehensive study of long-term health effects from an oil spill, it will attempt to collect health data on cleanup workers by contacting 100,000 of them directly and tracking 55,000 for at least 5 years, looking at long-term problems such as cancer, birth defects, and psychosocial issues. But at this juncture, experts worry that they won't know what to look for. Any short-term physiological effects such as elevated levels of biomarkers or telltale rashes that could be definitively linked to the spill are long gone, as are toxicants in workers' blood that could have provided information on exposure levels. What remains is an economically depressed community in which many suffer from stress-related illnesses that will be difficult to pin on any particular cause.