Federal agencies investigate mental and economic effects of BP oil spill
The federal government is kicking off several investigations of the health effects of the BP oil spill disaster. Projects will target physical issues, as well as the spill’s impact on Gulf of Mexico residents’ pocketbooks and state of mind. Experts say that all three are related.
“The committee recommends that priority be given to research that is designed to generate evidence about the psychological and behavioral effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” said the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on Oct. 25 in offering recommendations to the Department of Health & Human Services.
The IOM said the federal health agency’s upcoming study should target workers who depend on the drilling, seafood and other affected industries, as well as residents with a “prior psychological trauma,” such as Hurricane Katrina.
But experts say that the role of mental health in a disaster response is poorly understood.
“If one bright spot emerges from this catastrophe, it will be the incorporation of mental health-related emergency response into the core competencies for disaster preparedness,” according to an editorial in the September edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The editorial, written by a team led by Katherine Yun, a pediatrician and Yale University Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar, said that post-disaster mental health interventions have been of interest since the 1940s, but that the jury is still out on the best strategy.
In addition to the federal health agency’s study on mental and physical issues, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is developing a long-term study. Dale Sandler, the NIEHS’ epidemiology chief, said the agency will examine the psychological impact of economic losses.
“Our study is unique in that we are primarily focused on the potential long-term physical health consequences for oil spill clean-up workers,” wrote Sandler in an email. “The stresses associated with the spill may also have an impact on the overall general health of workers and the community.”
NIEHS is revising a draft of that study, which the agency’s ethics board will review next week.
And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the early stages of crafting a research and restoration response that could include mental and economic impacts.
John Hankinson, the recently appointed head of EPA’s Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, has acknowledged the economic value of the Gulf region. The first meeting, slated for Nov. 8 in Pensacola, Fla., will focus on “challenges in the Gulf, staffing and logistics, and task force objectives,” according to a Nov. 3 statement.
In the future, President Obama’s oil spill commission will also evaluate the spill’s impact and restoration of the Gulf. A Nov. 8-9 meeting of the commission will focus on the cause of the disaster.
Molly Davis is a reporter for The Texas Independent.