The charge to the IOM Committee to Review the Federal Response to the Health Effects Associated with the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill broadly relates to health effects from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This letter report specifically provides advice to HHS on research priorities related to assessing the health effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Overall, the IOM is tasked with providing periodic independent review of the federal response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as it relates to the surveillance and monitoring of workers and volunteers involved in efforts to stop the spill and environmental cleanup efforts and the affected public for acute and long-term physical and behavioral health effects.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a semisubmersible offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, killing 11 workers. The well that the rig was drilling began to spew crude oil into the Gulf and continued to spew millions of liters of crude oil until it was successfully capped in mid-July. This oil spill is unprecedented in its size, duration, and deepwater nature and in the use of dispersants and controlled burns in an attempt to ameliorate the consequences of the spill. The potential for human health effects linked to exposure to the oil in the environment and to the dispersants and fumes from the controlled burns is of concern. Also of concern are mental and behavioral health effects due to the temporary or permanent loss of livelihoods and uncertainty about the health of the environment and when people can return to work.
Although the findings of studies of previous oil spills provide some basis for identifying and mitigating the human health effects of oil spills, the existing data are insufficient to provide a full understanding of and to be able to predict the overall impact of hazards from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the health of individuals, including workers, volunteers, residents, and visitors (Aguilera et al., 2010). Many of the previous studies were designed to evaluate only short-term health effects and dealt with spills that were of known volume (for example, the Exxon Valdez and Prestige spills in 1989 and 2002, respectively).
To explore the needs for appropriate surveillance systems to monitor the Gulf of Mexico oil spill’s potential short- and long-term health effects on affected communities and individuals, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius contracted with the IOM to convene the public workshop Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill in the Gulf region. This workshop, which was held on June 22 and 23, 2010, in New Orleans, Louisiana, explored available scientific evidence to guide the development of appropriate surveillance systems and to establish possible directions for additional research. A summary of this workshop has been published (IOM, 2010a).
Aiming to fill the gap in knowledge on the health effects of oil spills, as well as to assemble information that can be used for prevention of adverse health outcomes and interventions against such outcomes in any similar situations in the future, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) plans to conduct a study designed to investigate