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A Developing Health Crisis Across the Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS - Days after the BP oil disaster began, on Apr. 20, 2010, BP and the U.S. administration pledged that Gulf Coast communities would be made whole. One year later that promise remains unfulfilled: across the Gulf there is a developing health crisis as a result of the oil spill.

Our state and federal governments, and BP itself, must demonstrate the will to take actions promised a year ago.

The BP spill poured over 170 million gallons of crude oil and immeasurable amounts of toxic gases into the waters and atmosphere of the Gulf of Mexico, in addition to the two million gallons of chemical dispersants used in the response operations, the full impact of which is yet unknown. For coastal communities exposed to these poisons, and that continue to find oil in their marshes and fishing nets, the health impact, we can be sure, will be severe and long term.

Oil and chemical exposure is widespread among residents across the U.S. Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen were exposed during the cleanup; families have been exposed along the beaches, bayous, and canals; entire communities along the shores and marshes continue to be exposed.

Oil exposure causes health consequences that range from chronic issues, such as acute headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, irritation of the eyes and throat, and vomiting, to more severe conditions, including reproductive problems, respiratory and nervous system failure, liver and kidney disorders, blood disorders, and several types of cancer. We know that the life-threatening volatile chemicals (VOCs) found in BP's oil are carcinogens.

While the federal government has taken some important steps, such as reaching out to local residents through the Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and establishing the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, directed at compensating economic loss, coastal communities are still bearing the brunt of the costs of the disaster.

The Centers for Disease Control has developed a surveillance system to track the health of cleanup workers, but has no similar programme for the rest of the affected population. We have yet to see a systematic response by local, state, and federal governments, and BP, to treat those in our communities who are coming down with these symptoms.

Our doctors have not had the support needed to appropriately document and track these symptoms. Instead, our neighbours are told to take pain-relievers, and some say they have been discouraged by health professionals from attributing their conditions to the oil disaster. All the while, we continue to hear of cleanup workers and coastal residents suffering from a pattern of symptoms that includes skin rashes, vomiting, and respiratory problems.

Communities and organisations across the Gulf are pushing for greater leadership in responding to the developing health crisis. To date, there is no agency - state or federal - that is taking the lead in coordinating a regional initiative to screen, treat, care for, and support disaster victims.

Coastal communities - which are rural - are in need of immediate treatment that is adequate, affordable, and accessible. Such treatment is currently available in only very limited areas, such as in certain neighbourhoods of New Orleans. Funds are desperately needed to ensure the continuation, and expansion, of such care, especially for the uninsured.

There are also low-cost, community-based healthcare models that are being sparsely implemented at the local level, but for such initiatives to respond effectively to the magnitude of the BP disaster requires the political will of states and the federal government. BP can and should pay the bill, and the U.S. Congress should take the lead to ensure that sufficient Clean Water Act fine revenues go directly to affected Gulf Coast communities.

A disaster of such proportions also will certainly have an enormous impact on mental health among Gulf residents, including high levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic anxiety. Making these communities whole requires both immediate treatment and a sustained medical intervention.

Volunteers, Gulf advocates, and healthcare professionals have tirelessly worked to document the impact themselves. Doctors and toxicologists testing the blood of disaster victims in coastal communities report alarmingly high levels of VOCs.

Dr. Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Fellow and chemist, reports finding amounts of VOCs at five to ten times in excess of the national average. One survey of 954 Louisiana residents found nearly half of the respondents reported an unusually sudden and severe increase in coughing, skin and eye irritation, and headaches following the BP spill. The dramatic appearance of such symptoms is consistent with chemical exposure.

Partnerships of community and national groups are developing programmes to bring low-cost and immediate treatment to those who need it most. An initiative by the Jefferson healthcare clinic, the Alliance Institute, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is one such effort - but making coastal communities whole requires intervention on a much larger scale.

Countries around the world recognise a right to adequate healthcare for all; when a corporation violates that right and does so in an egregious manner, it is our obligation to ensure that the full harm is remedied.

Our government and BP must carry through on their promise that coastal communities will be fully compensated for what has been imposed on them, and this must include provision of adequate, affordable, and accessible healthcare.

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