Five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, researchers at the National Institutes of Health are actively working with Gulf region community partners, to learn if any human health problems resulted from the disaster and establish a new research response plan to be better prepared for future disasters.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, is leading a three-part research strategy. This includes conducting the largest oil spill health study ever, the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLF STUDY), which is intended to evaluate the health of 33,000 cleanup workers for 10 years. Secondly, NIEHS is funding more than $25 million in research by Gulf area universities on the health of local residents, including pregnant women and children, and is also starting the NIH Disaster Research Response Project.
“Ever since the oil spill in 2010, we’ve been working to understand if the disaster caused health problems among Gulf Coast residents,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS. “Health research takes a long time, but we are making progress, thanks in large part to the continued and dedicated efforts of community partners.”
Preliminary results from the NIH-led GuLF STUDY are finding that oil spill cleanup workers reported increased physical symptoms, including cough and wheeze, and mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, compared to nonworkers.
The research team analyzed thousands of exposure measurements taken at the time of the spill to develop a job-exposure matrix that will allow them to estimate exposures to oil-related chemicals for specific cleanup jobs done at different times and locations. By combining this exposure information with what cleanup workers reported during GuLF STUDY interviews, researchers are now able to characterize the oil spill exposures of the study participants. This is allowing them to assess the link between reported health symptoms and the chemicals each person was exposed to in their specific jobs.
“Starting with total hydrocarbons as a marker of oil exposure, we are beginning to see that levels of chemical exposure vary across jobs and differ with the time period of the spill,” said Dale Sandler, Ph.D., lead researcher for the GuLF STUDY. “We’re finding that while the levels of exposure are lower than what people would experience in occupational settings, such as manufacturing plants or refineries, there is quite a lot of variability depending on the tasks performed and the work location. Exposure levels were higher for those working closest to the spill and while the well was leaking. Many of the measurements taken on land were at or close to normal exposure levels. This should be good news for many in the Gulf community.”
The 33,000 GuLF STUDY volunteers completed an initial comprehensive telephone interview about their health status and history. Participants include adults ages 21 and over who helped with the oil spill cleanup, took training, signed up to work, or were sent to the Gulf to help in some way. Just over 11,000 study participants completed home visits for medical evaluations, and nearly 19,000 have completed a second phone interview. Additionally, as part of the research, 1,000 have received clinical exams from GuLF STUDY partners at the Health Sciences Centers at the University of South Alabama, Mobile, and Louisiana State University, New Orleans. The clinical research exams include lung function and nervous system tests, and screenings for diabetes and cholesterol. Researchers are hoping to conduct clinical exams for about 3,000 more volunteers, and complete phone interviews with the remainder of the study participants in the next year.
Gulf University – Community Partnerships
NIEHS has also taken the lead in funding the Deepwater Horizon Research Consortium. This consortium brings together four universities — Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans; Tulane University, New Orleans; University of Florida, Gainesville; and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — working in partnership with about four dozen community organizations to conduct health research and communicate results.
These university-community partnerships are focused on conducting research to address health concerns specifically identified by the community following the oil spill, including pregnancy and birth outcomes, general physical and mental health of coastal residents, and seafood safety.
“The consortium exemplifies an equitable academic-community partnership and shows how community engagement can support research as well as address local needs,” said Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Population Health Branch and lead of the consortium.
Some preliminary findings from researchers in the consortium and elsewhere indicate that a person’s social environment may have an impact on their ability to cope with disasters or negative health outcomes. For example, individuals who have strong social support systems, or networks of families, friends, and neighbors that can offer psychological, physical, and financial support tend to be more resilient and able to cope and adapt to multiple stressors in post-disaster situations. Researchers have also determined that the seafood in the Gulf is not contaminated by the oil spill — an important finding for food supply and economics of the region.
Lesson Learned – Establishing a Disaster Research Response to Collect Vital Health Data
An important lesson learned from the Gulf oil spill and other recent disasters is that researchers need to be involved early in the response efforts to collect vital health information, including samples of air, water, and other materials and contaminants. They also need off-the-shelf customizable research tools if they are going to be able to move quickly to launch a research study that meets all guidelines for protecting the rights of study volunteers. As a result, NIEHS worked with the National Library of Medicine, also part of NIH, and other agencies to develop the NIH Disaster Research Response Project. Key elements of this project include publicly accessible field-tested data collection tools, research protocols, training materials and exercises, and development of a network of trained research responders.
“As a nation, we need to be better prepared to start research as soon as a disaster strikes,” said Birnbaum. “We need to be able to get researchers safely on-site immediately, if we’re going to have the data we need to understand any impacts on people’s health and improve our ability to prevent illness and injuries in the future.”