Survey Finds Gulf Oil Spill Taking Physical, Mental Toll on Adults and Children

Another survey conducted in the wake of the BP oil spill has found evidence of significant and potentially lasting impacts on the health, mental health, and economic fortunes of Gulf Coast residents and their children and on the way they live their everyday lives. The study was conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, in corroboration with the Children’s Health Fund and The Marist Poll of Poughkeepsie, NY.

For the survey, phone interviews were conducted with over 1,200 adults living within 10 miles of the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi. The interviews occurred in July, after the Deepwater Horizon well was capped.

“Over the last few days we are seeing an effort by officials who are suggesting that, as the oil is less visible on the surface, the ‘crisis is over.’ Clearly, this is far from the case,” Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and president of the Children’s Health Fund (CHF), said in a statement. “As shown by our survey, done after the well was capped, there is a significant and persistent public health crisis underscored by the large number of children with medical and psychological problems related to the oil disaster. These concerns will need to be assessed and managed in these coastal communities where there are few or no pediatricians and vastly insufficient mental health professional capacity.”

The survey found a dramatic relationship between economic vulnerability and health effects. Adults with household incomes under $25,000 were by far the most likely to report physical and mental health effects for themselves and also among their children.

The survey also found that:

• Over 40% of adults living within ten miles of the coast said they have experienced direct exposure to the oil spill or clean-up effort. Within this group, nearly 40% reported physical symptoms of skin irritations and respiratory problems, which they attributed to the oil spill.

• Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

• One in five households report a drop in income since the oil spill, and 8% report job loss. These losses were most likely to hit those who were already economically vulnerable: households with incomes under $25,000 a year.

• More than one-quarter (26.6%) of coastal residents said they thought they might have to move away from the Gulf Coast. Among those earning less then $25,000, the figure was 36.3%. Children whose parents think they may move are almost three times more likely to have mental health distress than are children whose parents do not expect to move.

• More than 70% of parents report children spending less time swimming, boating and playing in the sand; 21% say their kids are spending less overall time playing outdoors.

• Coastal residents had more favorable assessments and trust in their local and state officials and in the U.S. Coast Guard than they did in BP or other Federal agencies.

• Slightly over half of all coastal residents felt that BP’s response was “poor,” and 41.3% said that the President’s response to the oil spill was poor.

Dr. Redlener, a pediatrician and professor at the Mailman School, outlined a number of implications for policymakers and others: “Guidelines need to be developed, with active participation of relevant federal agencies, with respect to the short- and long-term health risks of remaining in affected communities. This should include recommendations, based on known science, on when families would be advised to move out of the community entirely.”

Dr. Redlener also said BP should provide funds to state and local agencies involved with providing assessment and care to affected families. “Children are particularly susceptible to the consequences of this disaster and need to have special resources focused on their needs,” he said.

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