LAFITTE, La. -- With the fourth anniversary of the BP oil spill just nine days away, there are still major questions about the spill's human health effects.
A government- and BP-funded survey by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is attempting to measure the long-term health impact of oil and dispersant on Gulf cleanup workers and coastal residents.
But with its long view, the survey has done little to establish a clear connection between the spill and the sudden onset of respiratory problems, skin conditions and increased depression and anxiety.
'I am not 100 percent confident at this point that it's the spill per se,' Dale Sandler, the epidemiologist leading the NIH study, said while discussing mental health issues during a Friday news conference.
'There have been studies following other oil spills. All of those studies seem to point to an increase in mental health symptoms that do go away over time,' Sandler added. 'What we're trying to do different from those other studies is ... we have a team of scientists pulling together all of the information that was collected on what exposures might have been to people in different jobs, in different areas, and bringing into this the environmental measurements, the air pollution data, and trying to come up with comprehensive estimates of exposure to oil or dispersants.'
That isn't doing much to ease the fishing community's lingering concerns. Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry is worried that the study will be 'another whitewash,' to back up assurances from BP and federal agencies that the air at many cleanup sites was safe.
'BP had its own safety people, its own air quality monitors and the federal government, EPA, Lisa Jackson, had monitors in Venice and different areas and said the levels weren't high enough to warrant respiratory protection,' Guidry said.
Meanwhile, people who worked on the cleanup, like George Barisich, say they are experiencing shortness of breath and pneumonia and can't get a clear diagnosis from doctors.
'I'm in Baton Rouge today to see the doctors again,' Barisich said. 'I'm used to working on my boat all day long, but now I can't run anymore.'
BP spokesman Jason Ryan said the company worked closely with the EPA, OSHA and other federal agencies to 'take extraordinary measures to safeguard the health and safety of responders.' He said 30,000 air monitoring samples proved that response workers and the public were safe during the response.
Ryan also said the company gave cleanup workers training and personal protective equipment, and those dealing with dispersants got respirators. Guidry contests that, saying he led the call for more respirators to be made available to cleanup workers and was ignored.
The NIH study is tracking 33,000 cleanup workers and coastal residents who were exposed to some of the 200 million gallons of oil BP spilled, as well as the approximately 2 million gallons of Corexit, the chemical that was sprayed to disperse the oil.
But Sandler said the number of people in the study who reported exposure to Corexit is relatively small. 'Less than 5,000,' she said.
Sandler's team has conducted about 11,000 home visits focusing on people who actually participated in the cleanup operations, both on shore and out on the water. But she said they have had trouble keeping track of people who are out working on the water for days at a time and often change cell phone numbers.
Nearly one in five participants reported being out of work when they took part in the initial survey, Sandler said.
The team is working on getting about 4,000 of the participants to take part in follow-up tests at one of two clinics one at LSU in New Orleans and another in Mobile, Ala. Those tests will take four hours and involve a battery of blood work, stress tests and other expensive exams.
Asked if the results could be used to substantiate medical claims against BP in court, Sandler said participants will have the data to do what they wish.
A court-appointed medical claims administrator recently announced that he is ready to begin paying claims under a two-year-old medical settlement between private plaintiffs and BP. Those payments are capped at about $60,000 for certain types of claims. BP also dedicated about $105 million under the settlement to improving health care in coastal counties and parishes.