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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

HHS Efforts Fact Sheet

December 9, 2010

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is committed to monitoring and addressing potential long-term health impacts of oil and dispersants, and ensuring the safety of seafood from areas affected by the oil disaster.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded $648,404 in SAMHSA grants to Gulf Coast states providing behavioral healthcare and other social services to people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. The grants will help the states conduct surveillance and direct behavioral healthcare services to people who are experiencing trauma and severe stress.

SAMHSA established a toll-free oil spill distress helpline (1-800-985-5990) to provide information, support and counseling for families and children affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Based on their area code and exchange, helpline calls are automatically routed to the closest Gulf Coast Lifeline Crisis Center. This new helpline also integrates services with the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

SAMHSA also developed a regional public education campaign designed to raise awareness about behavioral health issues and connect those in need to services available. These efforts include public education and outreach materials about recognizing signs and symptoms of distress and how to manage the distress, how to talk to kids and respond effectively. Materials include television, radio and print public service announcements and “Tip Sheets.” The complete series of tip sheets can be accessed at http://www.samhsa.gov/Disaster/traumaticevents.aspx.

SAMSHA and other HHS agencies are conducting an extensive effort to discover and assess the behavioral health needs of people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This comprehensive effort requires not only immediate assessment efforts, but also longer-term surveillance to adequately understand the full extent of the affected area’s behavioral health needs and the impact of behavioral health interventions on its recovery.

HHS will employ a number of its national surveys in this assessment program. Specialized sampling efforts will be undertaken throughout the gulf region using SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). 

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, activated programs throughout the institute to provide timely and responsive services following the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. Safety Training. Within days of the explosion, the NIEHS Worker Education & Training Program facilitated safety training for more than 100,000 cleanup workers.

The NIEHS Epidemiology Program is heading the NIH GuLF Study on the long-term health effects of the oil spill. NIEHS’ National Toxicology Program, working together with federal partners, is conducting studies to better understand the chemistry, biological fate, and toxicological effects of crude oil and dispersant components and breakdown products. The NIEHS will fund grants for researcher-community partnerships to address the needs of affected communities. In addition, the NIEHS grants program currently supports research and outreach efforts on the health effects of exposure to oil and dispersants. Details are available at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/programs/gulfspill.cfm

The NIEHS has hosted a series of community forums, stakeholder visits, webinars and instructional meetings throughout the 5-state Gulf region in order to promote awareness, participation and coordination for all these programs among local residents, state and local health departments, regional universities and researchers, and federal agency partners.

The GuLF (Gulf Longitudinal Follow-up) Study will focus on exposure to oil and dispersant products and potential health consequences such as respiratory, neurobehavioral, carcinogenic, dermal and immunological conditions.  The study will also evaluate mental health concerns and other oil spill-related stressors such as job loss, family disruption, and financial uncertainties. The NIEHS will invite approximately 55,000 people to participate in the study. Building on an extensive roster of cleanup workers developed by NIOSH, the NIEHS will supplement the roster with other lists of workers compiled by BP, contractors, and community organizations. The study will enroll cleanup workers, volunteers, and community members with varying levels of potential exposure including workers involved in oil burning, skimming and booming, equipment decontamination, wildlife cleanup, and also those with lower exposure such as shoreline clean-up workers. The study will also recruit some people who completed the worker safety training, but did not do any clean-up work. Members of the Coast Guard, National Guard, and other federal agencies who were called to respond will also participate in the GuLF Study.

CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) collaborated with BP Safety and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance personnel to coordinate the collection and analysis of injury and illness data that BP reported to OSHA.  NIOSH also conducted a voluntary survey (roster) of workers participating in the response to create a record and a mechanism to contact these workers about spill-related symptoms of illness or injury, if it becomes necessary.  More than 52,400 responders (BP-trained, volunteer, vessel of opportunity operators, and federal workers) were  rostered.  NIOSH also conducted a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) to assess potential occupational hazards and acute health symptoms in various workplace areas of the response, including source control, burning and skimming of the oil, decontamination of equipment and supplies used in the cleanup response, beach clean-up, wildlife rehabilitation, and disposal of oil waste.  Eight interim reports have been posted from these various phases of the Health Hazard Evaluation.  Spreadsheets containing exposure sampling and health survey data have also been posted.  NIOSH plans to issue a final report that will include an executive summary of findings and recommendations and the interim reports.  NIOSH also is conducting laboratory tests to study the toxicity of oil, dispersant, and oil-dispersant mix from the response.  Findings will be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

FDA investigators have inspected more than 300 primary seafood processors along the Gulf Coast to ensure that they are complying with the requirement that they have controls in place to guard against chemical contaminants in the seafood they process. The FDA has a toll-free number (888-INFO-FDA; 888-463-6332) for questions or concerns about seafood or to report any seafood suspected of being contaminated with oil.

On July 22, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began reopening federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to commercial and recreational fishing in accordance with the protocol agreed upon by FDA, NOAA and the Gulf States having determined that it was safe for the waters closed in response to the oil spill to be reopened to seafood harvesting. FDA and NOAA continue to monitor fish caught from the reopened areas, testing the fish for both petroleum compounds and dispersants, to ensure that the reopened areas remain free from harmful oil and dispersant residues.

FDA is notifying states when conditions have been met to reopen specific harvest areas to commercial harvesting of certain types of seafood.  FDA made its first notification on July 29 and continues to issue notifications as it completes its analysis of new seafood samples.  A listing of notifications sent to each state, as well as test results and maps of the samples areas, can be found at the FDA website (embed link into “FDA website”: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product-SpecificInformation/Seafood/ucm221959.htm).

CDC’s Environmental Health Team reviewed environmental data shared by EPA and others over the course of the response. These data included sampling results for air, water, soil/sediment, and waste oil samples (material actually reaching the beach or marsh). No new data have been received by CDC for some time, indicating that large scale sampling activities may have ended.  If additional samples are collected, then CDC will be available to review that information.  CDC, in coordination with state and local health departments, conducted surveillance across the five Gulf States for potential health effects related to the oil spill. CDC utilized two established national surveillance systems, the National Poison Data System (NPDS) and BioSense. These surveillance systems tracked symptoms related to the eyes, skin, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and neurological systems, including worsening of asthma, cough, chest pain, eye irritation, nausea, and headache. A summary of state findings is posted online.

Some of the pollutants that were suspected of being in the crude oil could have caused temporary eye, nose, or throat irritation, nausea, or headaches under some conditions.  Based on the data CDC reviewed, the most important human health outcome would be skin irritation due to long-term contact with the waste oil, such as tar balls.  Following the advice provided in CDC fact sheets about avoiding oil on beaches and washing frequently, would in large measure reduce the chances for skin irritation.  At this time, scientists do not believe that any of the levels reported in the environmental data along the coast were high enough to cause long-term harm.  Levels off-shore near the source may have affected unprotected workers, which prompted the protective measures.  Nonetheless, if additional sampling begins to find levels that might be of health concern, CDC will update the public. For up-to-date information on environmental data along the Gulf Coast, please see www.epa.gov/bpspill.

Oil-spill related health information for coastal residents, responders, healthcare providers and the general public can be found at http://www.hhs.gov/gulfoilspill/index.html and HHS division websites. Information is available in multiple targeted languages to address human health concerns related to the Gulf Coast oil spill. The latest update is Gulf Coast Information for Parents translated into Spanish at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/gulfoilspill2010/espanol/info_for_parents_es.asp