A recent scientific paper on the human health impacts since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster shows us the many ways oil pollution threatens our families and our communities. On April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people. For months, oil spread across the Gulf of Mexico and washed up on 1,300 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida. Tens of thousands of animals died, and coastal wetlands were irreparably destroyed. The impact to the environment was horrifying and we saw images of oiled pelicans and spoiled beaches on the news. The harm inflicted on the people of the Gulf coast was also serious, but too often overlooked.
After the oil disaster, people living and working along the Gulf coast endured physical and mental health problems for years. Families suffered from the financial strain as fisheries closed due to oil. The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster also compounded the suffering from previous tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, and left Gulf coast residents more susceptible to harm from future disasters.
While it’s widely known that oil is harmful to marine life, it’s also toxic for humans and is linked to a wide variety of health problems including:
· Irritation of skin, eyes, nose, and throat
· Chest pain, heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease
· Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and memory issues
· Abnormal liver and kidney function tests
Children, older adults, and people with chronic health problems were most in danger, along with the response workers who risked their own health to try to clean up BP’s mess.
Oil can damage our health for years. A 2020 study found workers’ lungs were finally healing four to six years after the disaster after showing damage from oil exposure. Workers exposed to oil were also more likely to have a heart attack for at least three years following the incident. In families that experienced oil exposure or economic loss from the spill, children had more health problems even eight years later.
Stress and difficult working conditions can amplify these health problems. For example, the heat and humidity exacerbated health problems for response workers following the spill, leading to heat stress. The increase in heart attacks could be from direct exposure to oil pollutants, heat stress, or strenuous physical work — all dangers created by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The controversial use of dispersants — substances that break oil slicks into small droplets — during the disaster response also intensified health issues. Dispersant exposure led to respiratory pain, eye irritation, and chest tightness both at the time of spill and up to three years later. U.S. Coast Guard responders exposed to both oil and dispersants reported worse neurological health problems than those exposed only to oil.
The health crises and financial stress of the disaster ultimately led to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Some people reported more stress dealing with the legal claims that followed the spill than from the spill itself. Children were twice as likely to have mental and physical health problems compared to those who were not affected by the disaster.
As we look back at the suffering caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the science shows us the devastation left in its wake. We must end all new offshore drilling to protect people and the environment. Offshore drilling is not worth the risk to coastal communities and public health.