Nine years of research on BP spill, dispersants documents potential human health, mental health effects

(from The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate / by Mark Schleifstein / January 2, 2020)

Nearly a decade of BP-funded research has uncovered a laundry list of potential health effects resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including possible links between obesity and dispersants used to break up the oil; the discovery of dangerous bacteria in tar balls still washing up on Gulf beaches; and a new understanding of the links between disasters and the mental health problems of both fishers and oilfield workers.

The research is summarized in a review article published in the American Geophysical Union’s GeoHealth journal in October, authored by researchers at the College of Charleston, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

The article describes the findings of more than 32 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Those papers outline the results of research paid for with grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, created in May 2010 to dole out $500 million in BP settlement money over 10 years.

The GOMRI board includes 10 scientists appointed by BP and two each appointed by governors of five affected states.

BP appointed Rita Colwell, a professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland and former director of the National Science Foundation, as the board’s chair. The company gave Colwell the authority to name the rest of the BP representatives to the board, none of whom were recommended to her by the company.

While GOMRI funded 1,747 peer-reviewed research papers that had been published by September, just 32, or 3%, focused on human health effects, according to the paper, which attempts to assess all 32 of them. The paper noted that just 1% of peer-reviewed papers on oil spills prior to the BP incident dealt with health issues.

Moreover, the GOMRI studies do not represent the full extent of the research conducted in the aftermath of the spill. Independent studies also have been funded by the National Academies of Science, the National Science Foundation, state science research centers funded with money from BP civil and criminal fines, and a variety of federal and state agencies in support of the federally required Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Dispersant effects

A number of the research projects focused on the unprecedented, widespread use of dispersants to break up the BP oil into tiny droplets that could more easily dissolve or be eaten by bacteria in the weeks and months after the April 20, 2010, fire and explosion.

A federal judge determined that the accident resulted in 3.2 million barrels of oil being released into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. More than 1.8 million gallons of two types of Corexit dispersant were used, including the unprecedented spraying of 770,000 gallons into the oil as it was being released from the wellhead more than a mile below the water’s surface. The rest was sprayed from airplanes onto the oil at the surface.

Two 2016 papers focused on a key constituent of Corexit dispersants — dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, or DOSS — and concluded that it was what enabled the combination of Corexit and oil from the well to activate a human gene linked to obesity. In one of the studies, the material was tested on mice and was found to cause an increase in fatty tissues in its liver.

One of those papers pointed out that DOSS and Span 80, another potential obesity-causing constituent of the dispersant, are also used as food additives, “and point to the need to understand (their) possible human health effects.”

The report also pointed to other studies of the effects of dispersants. Some indicated that, while use of the chemical on oil on the water surface might reduce the cancer risk from exposure to benzene, a constituent of oil, it also increased the creation of tiny particles that rose into the air, increasing the threat of lung disease in cleanup workers.

Oil contamination effects

Studies focusing on the effects of contamination by oil included several focusing on the link between the oil spill and so-called “harmful algae blooms,” especially those resulting from the dramatic growth of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis.

The oil acts like fertilizer or food for harmful algae, which release toxic substances in the air that can be poisonous to both wildlife and humans. The researchers concluded that a combination of overfishing and oil spills, plus reduced zooplankton and phytoplankton populations — tiny animals and plants that live in near-surface ocean waters — were together responsible for 15 percent of asthma events worldwide in 2004. Those events affected as many as 45 million people and may have been responsible for 33,000 deaths.

Their research also found the aerosol material released by harmful blooms can also carry methyl mercury and other contaminants, which could explain some mercury poisoning cases among humans that are believed to be linked to mercury contamination of fish.

Studies in the early years after the BP spill mostly showed that the closures to commercial and recreational fishing for up to a year of 88,552 square miles of Gulf waters blocked the spread of oil contaminants into the marketplace. One study looked at 278 seafood samples of fish, shrimp, crab and oysters collected weekly from May through October of 2010, and then monthly through August 2011. It found that levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, an oil constituent, were no different from those seen in an earlier 10-year study of seafood.

“The PAH levels in (Gulf) seafood were similar to levels found in grocery store and restaurant-grade seafood and far below public health levels of concern established jointly by NOAA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Gulf Coast states,” said the GeoHealth study review article.

Another study found that measurements of potentially harmful oil components in water along the coast “were at pre-spill levels soon after the spill ended,” although there were some locations where remaining oil could still pose problems. That study also pointed out that there’s still concern that existing seafood safety limits for oil compounds might not provide enough protection to at-risk parts of the population, including pregnant women, children, and members of ethnic groups that tend to consume a lot of seafood, including Vietnamese-American fishers.

Several studies also looked into the potential that a specific harmful family of bacteria pathogens, Vibrio, might take advantage of the spill and pose a greater threat to human health. One study found no evidence that the spill — and specifically, the PAHs found in BP oil — resulted in unusual blooms of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which causes gastrointestinal illnesses.

But another study found that weathered oil that washed up on Mississippi and Alabama beaches and formed tar balls contained significantly higher levels of Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria strain that can cause life-threatening wound infections or infections of the blood. The study found Vibrio in the BP tar balls at levels 10 times higher than found in sand, and up to 100 times higher than found in seawater. 

Mental health effects

A number of studies addressed mental health and social issues faced by residents and workers either directly exposed to oil, or impacted by the spill’s economic side effects, such as a ban on fishing and a federal moratorium on drilling operations.

One study compared the mental health issues experienced by people living in parishes considered to be “highly religious,” and those in communities where religion was not considered as important, and found little difference between the two. But it also found that in the highly religious communities, those who were less religious were also more likely to have depression or other mental health issues, likely because of less access to community assistance provided by churches.

One study of the blame and trust that those exposed to oil had in institutions — the BP company, the federal government and state governments — noted that respondents expressed high levels of distrust during the first year after the spill for both BP and the federal government. But they expressed a significantly lower level of distrust for state officials. BP was blamed for the accident and spill by 75 percent of those surveyed, compared to 50 percent for the federal government and only 20 percent for state governments.

Over three years of surveying, the number of respondents placing blame didn’t change for BP and the federal government, but rose to 32 percent for state governments.

The review article also pointed out that there are still a number of GOMRI research projects underway, including two examining the effects of dispersants on human lungs. 

The open access article, “Oil Spills and Human Health: Contributions of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative” is available for free at the GeoHealth website.

Read the full article here

GoMRI “In the news” is a reposting of articles about GoMRI-funded research (published by various news outlets).