Long-term oil disaster study still seeks participants

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Since it began its data collection in March 2011, the Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up (GuLF) study — a $25 million, 10-year project under the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — has gathered more than 29,000 participants to study the health implications of handling (and exposure to) oil, dispersants and other chemicals in the cleanup operations following the BP oil disaster.

The study closes its enrollment period at the end of year, on Dec. 31, and cleanup workers, rig workers, or people who received cleanup training or were assigned to the Gulf following the disaster are all encouraged to participate to help "get a full picture of what happened during oil spill and understand how it affected people’s health," said Dr. Dale Sandler, who heads the study. It aims to recruit 55,000 participants, but Sandler said, "If we can get to 35,000 or 40,000, we’d be a tremendous success." The study already is the largest of its kind.

As Sandler told Gambit last year as the study was underway, the scope of the project could include "looking at respiratory effects and nonspecific complaints — dizziness and headaches," but it's also interested in the long-term issues like chronic diseases and cancer. During a Tuesday phone conference, Sandler said she hopes the findings "will provide information on how oil spills impact physical and mental health," including depression, stress and anxiety.

The study begins with a telephone interview with detailed questions about work performed during the disaster, health at that time and health now, and lifestyle factors and other job history. The call is followed by a home visit from a trained medical examiner, who takes biological samples and tests lung function. Participants are given a $50 gift card. If necessary, participants are referred to a free or low-cost physician.

So far, Sandler said, 450 people were told to go see a doctor for elevated blood pressure or for poor lung function. Most participants with referrals are sent to a general medical practice, an urgent care facility or community clinic. Some have had consultations with practices that specialize in dealing with chemical exposure, she said.

The study also partnered with community leaders from more than 80 local organizations as “boots on the ground” to distribute more than 10,000 posters and brochures.

"People (who) want to know right away, 'What does this mean for me?' They’re impatient to know the answers to those questions. With the study, it’s going to take time," said Roberta Avila with Mississippi nonprofit collective STEPS Coalition. "We can’t possibly know today what the effects of the dispersant and the oil will have on us. … The only way we’ll know is with the study."

Paige Rucker, director of Project Rebound (funded by a $12 million grant from BP and the Alabama Department of Health to provide mental health counseling), said the program has served people for high stress and suicidal thoughts, and stressors are heightened by news stories about the lingering presence of oil and long-term health effects. "A big concern is long-term health," she said. "These are concerns we hear everyday."

The GuLF study hopes to complete 20,000 home visits by April 2013 and gradually make data available to communities and the media — sometime within four to six months.

Of its 29,000 participants thus far: 18 percent are in Alabama, 22 percent are in Florida, 23 percent are in Louisiana, and 25 percent are in Mississippi. The remainder are from outside the Gulf states. Twenty-five percent of participants worked in support efforts or took the training and didn’t work. About 60 percent are under age 45; 43 percent are over 45; 20 percent of participants are women; 20 percent are African American, and only 1 percent are Asian American. Sandler said there are Spanish and Vietnamese speaking staff who can assist with non-English speaking communities.

Sandler said the the biggest obstacle has been maintaining current contact information. Many participants gave incomplete or inaccurate contact information, or have disconnected phones.

People who want to participate can find more information on the study's website or can call 1-855-644-4853.

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