New Study Looks At Oil Spill's Health Effects

The National Institutes of Health launched a new study last week to look at possible health effects of last year's BP oil spill. The plan is to follow 55,000 cleanup workers and volunteers for ten years in towns across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. [audio:|titles=GuLFstudy|artists=Lhee]

For Bob Zales II, fishing is the family business. You name it, and he probably catches it.

But that all changed on April 20, 2010 – the day of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"I mean, it it it shut us down," Zales said. "But the fishery closures that came as a result of the oil spill pretty much devastated us."

Since then, life has been hard for the 58-year-old Panama City native. Zales was also one of the 130,000 workers who helped clean-up the spill. For every day over two months last summer, Zales took his boat and looked for oil in the water. Although he didn’t directly handle it, he was exposed to toxic fumes - a smell he says he won’t ever be able to forget.

"It’s kind of a combination of jet exhaust combined with diesel fuel," Zales said. "It was unique."

During the clean-up process, people came into contact with crude oil, burning oil and dispersants. The National Institutes of Health is concerned about the long-term health effects of the exposure.

Not much research has been done in this area, but the NIH hopes to change that.

"The GuLF study is the largest ever study conducted on the health effects of oil spills," said Dale Sandler, lead researcher of the GuLF study.

She said the project will follow 55,000 workers and volunteers for up to 10 years in towns across Gulf states, including Florida.

"There’s really very little information in the literature about what the long-term consequences might be," Sandler said. "And hopefully what we learn will allow people to plan better in the future in the event of another oil spill."

About 20,000 people will move onto the second phase of the study, which involves home visits. Medical assistants contracted by the NIH will collect samples of blood, urine, toenail clippings and hair from volunteers, as well as dust from their homes.

Scientists will analyze samples in the lab and compare those results to the symptoms that people have been experiencing after the oil spill.

"We’re specifically interested in lung function, and whether or not, for example, people who had asthma had their asthma get worse," Sandler said.

After the clean-up effort, fisherman Zales said he’s been experiencing sinus problems. He said if he’s selected to participate in the study, he definitely will.

"Without some type of good and well-designed study, you’re not going to be able to know where that impact came from, what it was, or where it might go," Zales said.

The NIH is mainly funding the project, with small support from BP. [ | FPR Super Spot]