Experts craft study of BP oil spill health effects

Published 2:31 pm Thursday, September 23, 2010

Doctors, scientists and public health experts began sketching the outlines Wednesday of a large-scale study of the health effects of the BP oil spill on cleanup workers and the public, hoping to include thousands of people in a review funded by BP.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services asked the nonprofit Institute of Medicine to gather a committee of experts to review the long-term physical and psychological effects of the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana that affected people in five states.

The Institute of Medicine provides advice and research to the government and the public. Oil giant BP PLC is contributing $10 million to the study. The expert committee it convened met in Tampa on Wednesday to discuss how to conduct the study.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“It would be great to get some sort of sense about the larger community and larger population,” said Robert Wallace, a committee member and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa. “To tell the public, ’This is where you fit in terms of what we’ve found in terms of health effects.’ That’s very important to me.”

Researchers hope to enroll some 27,000 people who participated in oil cleanup work for the study.

There has not been much work done on how oil spills, dispersants and the oil-dispersant mix affect human health, experts said.

Of the 38 large oil tanker spills in past 50 years, only 8 were studied for human health effects — and the oil disaster in the Gulf affected a larger area and more people than most of those spills.

“Research has typically been short-term,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, committee chair and dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

Researchers will begin looking for volunteers for the health study in the next month. Experts at the meeting admitted that they are starting the study late; fewer people are working or volunteering for the cleanup and fewer are coming into contact with heavy oil.

The BP-leased rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast on the night of April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off a massive spill that ultimately led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP’s undersea well.

Last week, a permanent cement plug sealed BP’s well.