Studies Examine Public Health Issues Following Deepwater Horizon

Photo credit: CC0, Public Domain

Photo credit: CC0, Public Domain

Large environmental disasters can have a wide range of impacts on communities in affected areas, yet we have a limited understanding about how disasters affect public health. Recently, researchers funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) published findings related to public health issues following Deepwater Horizon.

Two recent studies reported on findings from the Survey of Trauma, Resilience, and Opportunity among Neighborhoods in the Gulf (STRONG). This phone survey assessed well-being six years after the oil spill, with responses from 2,520 adult residents from 56 counties or parishes across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

A majority of survey respondents (~70%) reported that they experienced no or only a little worry in the years following the oil spill. Those who did report being very or moderately worried, were mainly concerned about economic stability, health impacts, and social relationships. Almost 60% of respondents reported at least one aspect of being affected by the oil spill, mainly involving where they worked (petroleum, fishing and seafood, and tourism industries) or involving their lifestyle (fishing, hunting, gathering, exercise/recreation, and diet/eating patterns). Individuals with a prior history of exposure to traumatic events may be particularly prone to worry about the oil spill’s health impacts. Unexpectedly, they found that worry was relatively high among respondents who were not Gulf Coast residents at the time of the oil spill. Researchers published these and other findings in Risk Analysis: Persistent Risk‐Related Worry as a Function of Recalled Exposure to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Prior Trauma. Data are publicly available through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative (GRIIDC) at doi: 10.7266/N76971Z0.

Researchers found that religious context generally did not influence alcohol misuse except under certain circumstances. Less-religious individuals living in areas of high religious adherence reported higher levels of potential alcohol misuse than those identifying as being more religious, with alcohol misuse magnified among those who experienced disaster-related social inconvenience. A possible explanation could be that social interaction in highly religious counties limits less-religious individuals’ access to social support and resources, increasing risk of alcohol misuse. Researchers published these and other findings in Population Research and Policy Review: Oil Spill Disruption and Problem Drinking: Assessing the Impact of Religious Context among Gulf Coast Residents. Data are publicly available through GRIIDC at doi: 10.7266/N76971Z0.

Read more STRONG survey results in these two summaries: Study: Fishing Households Experienced Depressive Symptoms Despite Social Support after Oil Spill and Study Improves Disaster Resilience Training for Community Health Workers.

Two recent studies reported results from literature reviews related to public health and disasters.

Researchers who conducted a broad review of key studies investigating disaster, resilience, and disaster-associated stress offered eight recommendations for including stress alleviation in disaster planning: (1) Improve stress management and treatment resources in existing disaster health programs; (2) Emphasize collection and continuous monitoring of relevant pre- and post-disaster biomarkers and health data to provide a baseline for evaluating disaster impacts and recovery; (3) Enhance the capacity of science and public health responders; (4) Utilize natural infrastructure, such as such as wetlands, to minimize disaster damage; (5) Expand the geographic reach of disaster response to better utilize displacement of affected people; (6) Utilize nature-based treatments to alleviate health effects from pre- and post-disaster stress; (7) Identify legislative and policy opportunities to address stress-related impacts, improve community engagement, and enhance provision of health services; and (8) Include community input to develop and institute pre-disaster processes for handling damage assessments, litigation, payments, and housing. These recommendations can help guide collaborative efforts to enhance resiliency and develop immediate response strategies that can be adapted for future events. The researchers published these results in Frontiers in Public Health: Enhancing Disaster Resilience by Reducing Stress-Associated Health Impacts.

Several scientists conducted a review of GoMRI-funded publications related to human health following the oil spill, which represent about 3% of papers from funded projects so far. Here are their conclusions about findings from the papers they reviewed: (1) The use of chemical dispersants raised concerns about its contribution to the inhalation of aerosolized oil and the disruption of lipid metabolism. (2) Direct oil contamination may be associated with pulmonary problems, seafood safety issues, potential increase in harmful algae blooms, and higher populations of pathogenic Vibrio bacteria in the environment, such as in tar balls that washed ashore and on oil-contaminated beaches. (3) Rural communities that rely heavily upon natural resource‐based employment and lifestyles were most affected by disaster‐associated stress and increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol misuse. Trauma history was the most significant predictor of a negative outcome, such as depression, illness related to anxiety, and alcohol abuse. Communities having a higher level of religious practice may help mitigate negative disaster effects for those within the religious community, while nonreligious individuals reported higher levels of alcohol misuse. Strong community attachment also may help mitigate impacts, strengthen resilience, and enhance recovery in some circumstances. (4) Suggested improvements to U.S. disaster response related to reducing human health impacts include a framework for a self‐evaluative and adaptive system; use of messaging methods for risk communication during a disaster event; training and greater use of trusted community health workers; and an informed focus on stress relief in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery programs. (5) Potential mental and behavioral health impacts should be a primary concern as is direct human exposure to contaminants. The researchers published these and other findings in GeoHealth: Oil Spills and Human Health: Contributions of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

Here is additional information about public health following Deepwater Horizon:

By Stephanie Ellis and Nilde Maggie Dannreuther. Contact with questions or comments.


This research was made possible in part by a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to the Coastal Waters Consortium III (CWC III) and the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities (CRGC).

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2010-2020 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (