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Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on Human Health

Statement by Dr. Nicole Lurie, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response on the IOM Letter Report: Assessing the Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on Human Health released Aug. 10, 2010.

The Department of Health and Human Services wishes to thank the Institute of Medicine (IOM) for convening a workshop to discuss methods for assessing the human health effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Protecting the health of response workers and the Gulf Coast communities is one of the primary goals of the Department.

The workshop, held in New Orleans on June 22-23, 2010, brought together subject matter experts from around the world to share current knowledge of the short- and long-term effects of oil exposure on human health, areas where further research is needed, current federal and state health monitoring efforts, potential research techniques, and how to implement effective surveillance and monitoring systems.  

Several themes emerged from the discussion, including the complexity of assessing adverse health effects, and the importance of considering the physical, psychological, and socio-economic dimensions of human health.  The scientific community’s understanding of the long-term health effects is greatly hindered by the lack of studies from previous oil events like the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.  The IOM meeting also emphasized the critical importance of community-based services in responding to the wave of behavioral health needs of the Gulf Coast, needs that are expected to increase over time.

Recovery efforts will require a long-term commitment to identifying and mitigating the acute, chronic, and long-term health effects of the oil spill.  Most participants agreed that standard protocols and close collaboration among academic institutions and federal agencies are needed with respect to both funding and implementing long-term studies.  It is also essential that local communities be engaged in planning of research efforts to maximize participation and that results be communicated regularly to the impacted communities. 

The IOM workshop continues to help guide our long-term surveillance, monitoring, and study of the health consequences of the Deepwater Horizon event. 

To read the IOM Letter Report: www.iom.edu/oilspillhealth.