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The Gulf Disaster Will Keep Destroying Lives For Years to Come -- Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

The gulf spill presents physical and mental threats to those nearby and across the country. Too bad there's no sound science to prove BP's responsible.

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“They didn’t exclude it because it’s believed to be without harm,” said William Nazaroff, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “They excluded it because they argued that the exposure pathways wouldn’t rise to a level that would lead to harmful exposure. I doubt that they had in mind its use as a cleanup chemical in an oil spill on the gulf. That scenario was not considered.”

On the issue of seafood consumption, JAMA’s study pokes a few holes in the White House’s recent assertion that “Americans can confidently and safely enjoy Gulf seafood again.” Because invertebrates like crabs and shrimp cannot clear dangerous hydrocarbons from their systems the same way fish and some shellfish can, these chemicals have the potential to accumulate for years. And since gulf scientists have begun to discover trace amounts of oil in blue crab larvae, there’s reason to be concerned about how often, and in what volume, gulf catches are consumed.

“The oil has reached a position where it can start moving up the food chain instead of just hanging in the water," Bob Thomas, a biologist at Loyola University in New Orleans, recently told AP. "Something likely will eat those oiled larvae ... and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on." All the way up to humans.

Bioaccumulation is one concern; another is the flawed FDA/NOAA protocols for determining seafood safety. According to Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the NRDC and one of the JAMA study’s authors, the standards (which apply to all gulf seafood -- about 70 percent of the U.S.’s supply) employ a series of “faulty assumptions.”

For example, the agencies used a baseline weight of 176 pounds when evaluating the human body’s capacity to metabolize contaminants – a figure that effectively ignores a large percentage of young children in the U.S. as well as approximately 50 percent of women. They also botched consumption rates: Ignoring the NOAA’s guidance, the FDA used national estimates to determine how much seafood gulf residents were eating. This method is highly problematic given the fact that many people who live near the spill (fisherman, for example) are likely to consume an amount of seafood that’s much larger than someone in say Idaho or Colorado.

Finally, the testing timeframe leaves a bit to be desired: Despite evidence from earlier spills that suggests contamination can persist for up to seven years, the NOAA and FDA intend to monitor seafood for only five. According to Solomon, this is essentially an arbitrary number. “The FDA risk assessment,” she recently wrote on her blog, “did not provide a scientific rationale for the choice of only a five-year exposure duration.”

Chemical exposure (be it through contaminated seafood or inhalation and dermal contact) is only part of the gulf disaster equation. In addition to running a high risk of developing physical maladies, gulf residents are also more susceptible to a slew of mental health problems that are, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to those felt after Exxon/Valdez. According to a July study from Ochsner Health System, a Louisiana-based non-profit, 30 percent of gulf residents have begun experiencing signs of “probable serious” or “probable mild-moderate” mental illnesses since April. That number is more than double what it was just two years ago, despite 2007’s proximity to the stresses of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

According to Ochsner, “Gulf Coast residents reported the most stress from money problems (34 percent) and work issues (19 percent), while relationship difficulties, substance abuse and missed appointments with mental health professionals added to their woes during the ongoing disaster.” Those with the lowest incomes – less than $25,000 per year -- were found to be the most susceptible.

So what are doctors to do with this information? The JAMA authors say “prevention of illness from oil and related chemicals on the Gulf Coast during the cleanup period includes proper protective equipment for workers and common-sense precautions for community residents.” But since there’s really nothing in the way of peer-reviewed science documenting Exxon/Valdez’s long-term physical and emotional health effects, drawing hard-and-fast medical conclusions from 1989’s debacle is a pretty fruitless endeavor.