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Health Crisis Rocks the Gulf in Aftermath of the Spill, But Feds and BP Turn a Blind Eye

A year later there is widespread complaints of nosebleeds, GI pain, memory loss, persistent coughing, skin lesions and other serious conditions. But where's the help?

Contrary to many national stories covering the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a health crisis in the region has developed among exposed workers and residents. And it's not so "mysterious."

In recent meetings with public health, medical and chemical experts in Louisiana -- the Gulf state hardest hit by the worst offshore oil spill in history -- AlterNet found a striking symmetry between debilitating chronic symptoms being reported among those sickened and the known effects of chemicals in the toxic brew of oil, dispersant and burned crude to which they were exposed.

One year later, persistent coughing, wheezing, headaches, fatigue, loss of balance, dry itchy eyes, runny nose, nosebleeds, rectal bleeding, skin lesions, gastrointestinal pain, cardiac arrhythmia and memory loss are common complaints -- all consistent with exposure to chemicals released in the water and air since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast.

In addition to these physical heath issues, mental health experts are finding an increase in associated psychological distress, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are fueled by converging concerns over health, loss of livelihood and general insecurity about the future.

While long-term studies are underway, such as the National Institute of Health's projected 10-year monitoring of 55,000 cleanup workers, experts stressed both the need for those affected to be assessed for chemical exposure immediately and lamented the lack of access to medical doctors trained to diagnose and treat such exposure.

Nearly every source AlterNet interviewed in Louisiana called the health situation "a mess" and said it is not being adequately addressed.

Current Manifestations of Physical and Psychological Impacts

Dr. Mike Robichaux, a highly regarded ear, nose and throat doctor in Raceland, Louisiana, is seeing many of the most commonly reported physical symptoms, and some more unique, in scores of patients he's treated pro bono at night, working nearly round the clock after regular office hours.

On average, Robichaux, who's also a former state senator, said he sees four or five new patients a week with health complaints that manifested after the oil spill.

Recently, he's found a spike in "absolutely fantastic" amounts of memory loss. He said it took him awhile to figure it out because many of his patients we're forgetting to mention the problem until their wives asked Robichaux if they'd discussed it.

University of Maryland School of Medicine neurologist Lynn Grattan, who was in Raceland to begin a study on Robichaux's patients, said of their memory loss, "It's nothing we've ever seen before."

Additionally, Robichaux is detecting a pattern of extremes in blood sugar levels that he hasn't observed in his thirty-seven years of practicing medicine.

"People are coming in with dizziness and they're having these bizarre symptoms of heart rates racing up and down," he said. "Their blood sugars are shooting way up and then screeching down in a much more exaggerated fashion than anything I've ever seen."

He believes "there's no question" these symptoms and others he's treating are attributable to the oil and dispersant because "it's such an exaggerated thing" and virtually all of his patients say they had none of these health problems before the spill.

James Diaz, director of environmental and occupational health sciences at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, said he's "not surprised at all" by many of the current chronic symptoms being reported -- respiratory, dermatologic, ocular and neurological -- because they are consistent with exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, chemicals in crude oil and dispersants.

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