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Saturday April 19th 2014

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Ills of the Spill

The impact on human health
By Jeremy Morrison

So far the meeting was going well. Clinically cordial, with deli cold cuts and coffee. But then James “Catfish” Miller decided to make some noise.

“Y’all’s study is too late for us!” he yelled. “We’ll be dead in 10 years, maybe five.”

Miller stormed out of the community center and into the sticky Biloxi night, where he continued the gruff, growling rant of a desperate man who spent 68 days working in BP’s Vessel of Opportunity program. With brutal bursts of laughter, he recalled having oil burned around him, chemical dispersants dumped on top of him and “bleeding out my nose, my ears, my ass—puking!”

The fisherman had come to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences forum seeking what he had been unable to find elsewhere. Answers.

“I can’t get no help, man,” Miller said.

Inside the community center, federal researchers had tried to calm him. Dr. Dale Sandler, head of a federal study examining possible health issues surrounding the 2010 oil spill and clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, urged the fisherman to share his story with her team.

“You know how many times I’ve been in the hospital, sweetheart?” Miller barked. “Nine times! We’re not a bunch of guinea pigs—do you understand?”

After the meeting, Dr. Sandler slumped into a folding chair in the back of the room. She had just wrapped up the first night in a series of community health meetings along the Gulf Coast. These were contentious waters.

“There’s a group of people that come that want people to listen to them,” Sandler said. “As you heard, there is a group that is very angry. They want answers and unfortunately these answers take a long time.”

THE LABORATORY GETS WEIRD

Back in May of 2010, people gathered inside a small church in Port Sulphur, La., to collectively freak out about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They wondered when the sweet crude might engulf the marshes. They wondered about the chemical dispersant Corexit. They wondered why they were getting headaches.

“Let’s be honest,” someone said. “What is it gonna do to us? Do we need to leave?”

These were the ignorantly innocent days of the spill. The oil and tar balls hadn’t washed onto the shores. Neither had the beached and bloated dolphins. The dark ooze had not yet painted a latex glove and dripped all over cable television. United States Coast Guard Capt. Edwin Stanton was still suggesting it was perfectly safe to go for a swim at the spill site.

“Do you wanna live here? I dunno,” Stanton told the people at the church. “I can’t tell you what to do. If it were me, personally, I probably wouldn’t leave.”

A few pews back, a young mother stood to address the collection of government and BP officials. She looked ready to unleash a pack of yellowjackets.

“My number one concern—see this right here—this is my number one concern,” said Kindra Arnesen, pointing to her daughter seated by her side. “My biggest fear is that in 10 years I’m gonna have to look at Aleena and say, ‘The reason you’re in this hospital bed is because I kept you here.’”

Once BP announced the well had been capped, Arnesen wanted to believe life could return to normal. She could get back to the family’s barbecue restaurant and her husband could get back to fishing. That would have been nice.

“Kids are popping up sick all over the place,” Arnesen said last week from her home in Venice, La. “It’s crazy. Our worst fears are coming true.”

Sloshing around the swamps of Plaquemines Parrish, Venice is about as close to the Deepwater Horizon site as you can get without a boat. And Arnesen has the best seats for the worst show in town.

“My house is literally the closest house on the closest land mass to the Deepwater Horizon,” she said.

Shortly after the spill, Arnesen’s daughter began to get recurring fevers every few weeks. Then the 8-year-old began to have pains in her chest.

“I put my hand on her chest and her little heart would just be racing,” Arnesen said. “This just started happening over and over and over again.”

Doctors chalked the girl’s problems up to anxiety. But Arnesen said her daughter—who has also recently begun to experience stomach pains—is not an isolated case.

“It would be different if she was the only one that’s having chest pains,” the mother said.

Arnesen said her community has seen a spike in conditions ranging from symptoms such as her daughter’s, to respiratory problems, skin rashes and neurological issues. She doesn’t think the area’s medical professionals are equipped to deal with the problems.

“They don’t know what they’re looking at,” Arnesen said, explaining that she feels people are being misdiagnosed as having illnesses like chickenpox and hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

Voicing a common complaint, the Venice resident said she is now wracked with headaches.

“I get really, really bad headaches,” Arnesen said. “I ain’t never got headaches like this in my life.”

She described how one of her friend’s kids is having severe respiratory and intestinal problems. And then there are the nosebleeds. And the seizures.

“One of my childhood friends had a seizure three weeks ago and fell off the boat and we still haven’t found him,” Arnesen said. “This ain’t no joke.”

Farther west, in Terrebonne Parish, people milled about outside a bingo hall and waited to discuss their health concerns with the folks from NIEHS. Maxine Fazzio was worried about her husband, Steve, who worked to clean up the spill.

“His nose just started bleeding out of the blue,” she said.

Ashleigh Harding was also waiting out the Louisiana sunset prior to the community meeting. Three friends waited with her. They had all worked to clean oiled beaches in the area.

“My ear’s bleeding and I cough a lot,” Harding said. “They didn’t give us no masks or nothing. I thought that they should’ve given us Tyvek suits or something.”

At the Biloxi meeting, James Hinton said he began getting sick during the initial clean-up work. The Gulfport, Miss., resident described a “do or die” atmosphere that turned a blind eye toward health issues.

“I’d never been sick like that before, just went to the doctor and got some medicine and kept on working,” Hinton said. “No one thought anybody was gonna do anything about it cause BP was sweeping everything under the rug. If you spoke up, it was your job.”

In mid-October, the Alabama Oil Spill Aftermath Coalition set up camp on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., at the National Shrimp Festival. They thought the crowds of seafood-hungry festival-goers might make for a good audience. They wanted people to know something is wrong.

“To wake up and realize it’s not all peaches and cream,” said organizer Michele Lalker.

After much haggling with local officials, the group landed itself a spot on the beach that was nearly visible from the National Shrimp Festival. They lounged under a canopy and discussed the high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in their bodies.

Clayton Matherne leaned back in his lawn chair. He used to work on a 220-foot supply boat performing support operations in the Gulf.

“The rig blew, all hell broke loose and I’m sick as a dog,” Matherne said, describing an onset of post-spill seizures. “Can’t find a doctor willing to treat you or touch you.”

Beside him is John Gooding. The soft-spoken Mississippian sipped a can of Coke and explained how he started having seizures in February.

“Got a house in Bay St. Louis that I can’t live at,” Gooding said. “It’s too close to the beach.”

He restored the historic house after Hurricane Katrina, but now says his health worsens when he returns home. Two of Gooding’s dogs in Bay St. Louis have died since the spill, the first due to a miscarriage.

“Her entire uterus fell out and she died,” he said. “The other died of having seizures. Like me.”

DOCTORS FROM D.C.

The federal government is beginning to plow into these dark waters. There are currently a couple of different studies examining what health issues may or may not be related to the oil spill.

“We’re down here now to make sure people know who we are,” Sandler told those gathered in Biloxi. “To make sure people know we’re legitimate.”

Sandler, chief of the NIEHS’s Epidemiology Branch, is leading the GuLF study, or Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study for Oil Spill Clean-Up Workers and Volunteers. It aims to follow spill workers over the next 10 years.

“We want to document what people are experiencing now,” she said, “but what we feel is really important is seeing what might happen in the future.”

Late this summer, the group held a couple of meetings in Alabama. This month the GuLF study team made its way to Mississippi and Louisiana. In January, they plan to hit Pensacola. They’re hoping to enlist 55,000 people in the study.

“Everybody has a story,” said Cynthia Klein, who’s helping with the study. “We’re very interested in hearing your story.”

Participants in the GuLF study will begin by allowing the government to make a home visit and assess their health. Researchers will need to dive into a subject’s medical history, as well as collect current data. Every couple of years, participants will be asked for an update, some may be asked to undergo additional medical tests. Participants will be given access to any medical information gleaned from the study, as well as information about where they might seek help for any health issues. They will also receive a $50 gift card.

“There’s actually been a lot of oil spills over the years and we know very little about the health implications,” Sandler said.

In addition to the GuLF study, the NIEHS is also conducting a separate, five-year study on the spill’s health implications for various communities around the Gulf. Portions of the study were divvied up between Tulane University, Louisiana State University, the University of Florida and University of Texas. Academic researchers will be looking at the spill’s effects on entire communities, as well as specific segments, like women or certain ethnic populations.

Dr. Ed Overton, an LSU scientist, will be part of the team concentrating on Vietnamese fishing communities.

“They basically use seafood as subsistence living,” Overton said. “They eat a third of their catch and sell the rest. They’re plenty worried.”

In Biloxi, Thao Vu translated Sandler’s presentation for a group of local fishermen. She came to the meeting on behalf of the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese American Fisherfolks and Families.

“They would like to be tested right away,” Vu said. “And not wait years from now.”

She said some people in the community believed that their health was deteriorating as a result of the spill. Vu said blood tests may help shed light onto possible issues.

“Chemicals don’t last in the blood that long,” Sandler told her, stressing that the results of such tests couldn’t be read definitively. “We frankly don’t know what these results mean yet.”

And while she stayed safely enough away from specifics, the federal researcher did say her team will be looking for some issues generally thought to be associated with oil spills. In addition to an increased level of VOCs, oil and dispersants could also possibly affect breathing, skin conditions and reproductive processes.

“We know we should look at respiratory effects. We know we should look for changes in the blood,” she said. “And we should be concerned if there’s longer term neurological problems.”

The GuLF study focuses primarily on people who worked in clean-up efforts. It will also take a look at coastal residents who did not work the spill, as well as volunteers.

In Biloxi, Joseph Ferguson told Sandler about how his work mending shrimp nets was bringing him into repeated contact with what he believed to be a mixture of oil and dispersants.

“You didn’t see this on the nets before,” Ferguson explained. “She said, ‘We didn’t think about all this.’”

“Every time I go to a meeting, I find out about another group of people,” Sandler said.

The epidemiologist has heard some mention of prison labor being contracted to clean beaches during the spill, but didn’t foresee that population being factored in to her study.

“We’re not allowed to study prisoners,” she said, explaining that historically unethical tests on inmates had taken that area of study off the table.

Sandler is careful when she discusses her study. At times, she frames it as a general health analysis of the Gulf Coast. She expects to find some issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re due to the spill.

“There is a big, unaddressed health care need in this community and it was here before the spill,” Sandler said.

That kind of sentiment didn’t play well with the Vietnamese fishing community in Biloxi. Their cool stares became somehow more focused—like ninjas on laser beams—as Sandler’s message was translated.

“They feel that their health has been impacted but there is no acknowledgement,” Vu said. “The first step is you have to acknowledge that something is wrong.”

MAD SCIENTISTS AND THE POISIN-PURGE

Shortly after the oil spill occurred, Riki Ott plunked down for a long-term car rental and began driving back and forth across the Gulf states. At community meetings, she would ask if anyone was experiencing recent rashes.

“People would raise their hands and people would look around and their faces just dropped,” Ott said.

After living through the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Ott has become a go-to expert on such disasters. She’s got a Ph.D in marine toxicology and preaches the dangers of oil pollution.

“It’s just well established in the medical community that oil causes short and long term health problems,” Ott said. “People should have been evacuated.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade took a survey of coastal residents following the spill. Roughly half of the 954 respondents reported some form of health issues they attributed to the spill.

“So yeah, it looks like something was up,” said Anne Rolfes, founder of the bucket brigade.

Ott said she has seen a number of people turn to Metametrix, an Atlanta-based company that can test blood for the presence of toxins, specifically petro-related toxins in this case. Results have apparently revealed some concerned coastal residents to be in the 95th-percentile.

“In other words, they’re at the top,” Ott said. “They’re the extreme.”

Dr. Mike Robicheux used to be a Louisiana state senator. He also played defensive end for the LSU Tigers. Now the Raceland, La., physician has an ear, nose and throat practice.

“I’m just a dumb-ass doctor who’s a bit of a political activist,” Robicheux said. “I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’m just taking care of a lot of sick people. I’m just sitting here on the front lines.”

From his vantage point, the doctor believes he has witnessed waves of spill-related health impacts. First, there was the coughing and the headaches and the rashes; they tended to be quick onsets and departures. Now, he’s more worried about neurological effects, long-term fatigue, memory loss and abdominal cramps.

“Cajuns are just not people that complain a lot,” Robicheux said. “You pretty much had to dig it out of them, what was going on.”

The medical establishment, in his opinion, has been ineffectual in dealing with these issues. “They don’t know what to do because there’s nothing to do, in general,” he said of doctors encountering spill victims. “They’re only too happy to get rid of them.”

Outside the Biloxi meeting, Catfish Miller described numerous visits to the doctor. They were never able to help.

“These people run me out of the hospital,” he said. “They filled me full of steroids.”

Ott believes that problem spans the Gulf States’ coastal communities.

“They’re treating them for something they don’t have and they’re not treating them for something they do have,” she said, adding that post-spill, persistent run-of-the-mill issues shouldn’t be ignored. “These colds and flu-like symptoms that have been hanging around, maybe aren’t colds and flus. Maybe it’s something else.”

Some people have begun turning to detoxification treatments. They are attempting to cleanse their bodies of contaminants.

“It’s one of the necessary steps to regain wellness,” Ott said. “That’s really the only way to do it. Otherwise, the stuff is parked in you until you die.”

Robicheux has been assisting people with detoxing on a pro bono basis.

“It’s extracurricular, but full-time,” he said, cautioning that the approach should be seen as a “Band-Aid” and not a cure-all. “We’re gonna get ’em better. We’re gonna get ’em better to a degree.”

Miller plans to make the drive to Dr. Robicheux’s sometime soon.

“I’m on the next scheduled group to get detoxed,” he said through a last-ditch grin.

CAN LIGHT LIVE IN THE SHADOWS?

As Miller vented into the Biloxi darkness, a nice man in a nice shirt stood off to the side listening quietly. Ducking back into the community center, the man expressed concern that the outburst may be distracting from the night’s main message. Earlier, he had expressed concern that a mosquito-swollen pool of standing water in the parking lot might make for better media coverage than the NIEHS meeting.

“Just joking,” the man had laughed.

Another man at the meeting also sported a nice shirt and a big smile. His name is Todd Ragusa. He works for Deveney Communication and is responsible for managing the federal team’s Gulf Coast visits.

Ragusa couldn’t be friendlier. He made sure everyone at the meetings got all the snacks they wanted and shook hands with people as if they were the most exciting person he’d met all week.

The men in the nice shirts are textbook-swell, but they serve as an illustration as to why the federal health studies are being met with a bit of skepticism. In addition to facilitating the NIEHS’s visits to the gulf region, Deveney is also responsible for boosting regional tourism—an industry in which BP has invested heavily since the spill.

On its website, the firm touts its successes in changing the public’s perception about the spill’s negative impacts. A company that deals in perception tends to lend an air of shadows to a project centered on objective scientific research.
Plus, the studies are partially funded by BP.

“BP has no involvement in the study,” assured Sandler.

The GuLF study’s number two researcher, Dr. Richard Kwok, appeared appalled at the suggestion that the federal study would be anything other than straight.

“We’re asking questions and shining a light into this area,” he said after the meeting in Terrebonne Parish. “I can assure you that it’s going to be unbiased.”

Kwok mentioned that Robicheux had spoken at the meeting. The researcher seemed pleased that the firecracker-Louisianan doctor had encouraged people to participate in the federal study.

“I don’t see where it would hurt anything,” Robicheux conceded later. He was a little gruffer the day before.

“The people from the NIH have their heads right up their asses,” Robicheux had said. “Every one of the studies is designed to fail insofar as identifying the source of this. First of all we have to identify that this happened and the oil and gas industry is not going to let that happen.”

This is a common thread in some camps along the coast.

“You have no idea what we’re up against, I’ve learned so much,” said Arnesen. “It’s corrupt. It’s only about the oil and gas industry.

This line of thought is probably due in large part to the federal government’s and BP’s awkward marriage throughout the spill and clean-up. Or, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s bullheaded lowballing of the spill’s early flow-rate. Or, the Environmental Protection Agency’s locked-down insistence that gulf seafood is safe when conflicting studies continue to emerge. Or, Kenneth Feinberg’s saying he was “dubious” of spill-related health claims.

And while federal researchers encounter a somewhat suspect population during their ventures down South, Gulf Coast residents are also getting a tense reception when taking their concerns to Washington D.C.

“Need to calm down? Now we got kids sitting at desks with nose bleeds,” said Arnesen, freshly back from visiting with lawmakers. “This isn’t cute. This is as real as it gets.”