Oil and Society

# Impact on children and families of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

December 28, 2010, 3:37 pm
Source: National Center for Disease Preparedness
 Topics: More

Mock grave yard of the other hapless 'victims' killed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Credit: Newswire

Editor's Note: This article is excerpted directly from: “Impact on Children and Families of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Preliminary Findings of the Coastal Population Impact Study,” David Abramson, Irwin Redlener, Tasha Stehling-Ariza, Jonathan Sury, Akilah Banister, Yoon Soo Park; National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Research Brief 2010:8. Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York. (Release date 3 Aug 2010). It has been edited only to conform to Encyclopedia's style guidelines.

## Executive Summary

Although the ruptured Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped on July 15, 2010, an estimated 3 to 5 million barrels of oil spilled in to the Gulf of Mexico over a three-month period.1 Several surveys prior to the capping of the well documented the concerns and immediate effects of the oil spill on coastal residents. One report by a team of LSU sociologists highlighted the anxiety caused by the oil spill – nearly 60% of the 925 coastal Louisiana residents interviewed said they were almost constantly worried by the oil spill.2 As the “acute phase” of the oil spill transitions to a longer-term “chronic phase,” researchers at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, in collaboration with the Children’s Health Fund and The Marist Poll, interviewed over 1,200 coastal residents in Louisiana and Mississippi, with a particular focus on the shortand potential long-term impact of the disaster on children. This study was informed by work the researchers have done post-Katrina as part of the Gulf Coast Child & Family Health Study, which has documented the enduring effects on impacted populations in the two states, particularly children.3 Among the topics that the research team explored in this initial phase of the Coastal Population Impact Study were the following:

• Exposure: What proportion of the population living within a 10-mile radius of the coastline had been directly exposed to the oil spill? Were some groups within that area more likely than others to be exposed?
• Effects on Children: What were the immediate and perceived long-term physical and mental health effects of the oil spill on children and on adults? What economic effects of the oil spill have been felt by the coastal population?
• Decisions: How has the oil spill begun to shape decisions faced by coastal residents? This includes such daily decisions as where children can play or whether local seafood is safe to eat, as well as projected decisions about whether or not people think they will have to move.
• Trust: Which public officials are most trusted to provide accurate and reliable information, and who is perceived to have been most (or least) responsive to the oil spill crisis? Do coastal residents have a trusted source for health information about the effects of the oil spill?

Key Findings:

1. Over 40% of the population living within ten miles of the coast had experienced some direct exposure to the oil spill.
2. Over one-third of parents reported that their children had experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.
3. One in five households has seen their income decrease as a result of the oil spill, and eight percent have lost jobs. Only five percent of coastal residents reported having received any cash or gift cards from BP, although over fifteen percent believe they may be eligible for compensation from BP for health consequences of the spill.
4. Over one-quarter of coastal residents think they may have to move from the area because of the oil spill.

## Decisions

This study explored a number of decisions related to the oil spill facing coastal residents on a daily basis – whether it was safe to eat local seafood; whether they have changed their summer plans, or restricted their children’s recreational activities in the Gulf; and their thoughts about having to move from the Gulf Coast. As illustrated in the two figures below and presented in Table 5, a number of coastal residents have either already modified their behaviors or expect to do so. Overall, 26.6% of coastal residents think they may have to move from the area, a number significantly higher among those earning less than $25,000 annually (36.3% think they may have to move) compared to those earning over$75,000 (20.0% think they may have to move).

When it comes to eating local seafood, 65.0% of coastal residents believe it may not be safe, although there is a large difference between Louisiana residents (48.6% of whom believe it may not be safe to eat local seafood) and Mississippi residents (of whom 75.7% said it may not be safe). As expected, a significant number of coastal residents have made hanges to summer activities, with 84.9% of parents reporting that they have decreased their children’s time swimming in the Gulf, 81.8% reported a decrease in fishing, and 73.2% a decrease in boating. In each of these cases, the proportion of parents in Mississippi reporting decreases in their children’s activities is greater than among Louisiana residents, despite differences in the risk communication messages offered by their respective governors. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was consistently more positive in asserting the safety of the state’s beaches and waterways, whereas Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was more cautious in his public statements.

## Trust

Generally speaking, coastal residents had more favorable assessments and trust in their local officials and in the US Coast Guard than they did in BP officials or President Obama. When asked to rank the response of various officials (Table 6), coastal residents were most impressed with Governor Jindal: 33.2% of Louisiana residents said his response to the oil spill was excellent, compared to 10.9% of Mississippi residents who ranked Governor Barbour’s response as excellent. Slightly over half of all coastal residents felt that BP’s response was “poor,” and 41.3% said that the president’s response to the oil spill was similarly poor. The county executives and parish presidents, local officials such as mayors, Governor Jindal, and the Coast Guard received poor rankings by 11 to 13% of coastal residents, lower than Governor Barbour’s rating (27.9% poor).

When asked who they trusted to provide accurate and reliable information about the oil spill (Table 7), similar trends held: Governor Jindal was the most trusted public figure (78.4% of Louisiana residents said they trusted him “a great deal” or “a good amount”), followed by local officials (75.0%), county executives or parish presidents (73.3%), and the US Coast Guard (73.1%). Less trusted were Governor Barbour (58.5%), President Obama (47.9%), and BP officials (31.0%).

Among parents, 79.9% reported their child had a personal physician or nurse – a “medical home” – and 89.2% reported that they knew a health professional they could turn to if they had questions about the health effects of the oil spill on their children.

## The Return of Uncertainty?

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, chaos and uncertainty had generally subsided and the people in the Gulf Coast had returned – or were on their way to returning – to more stable lives. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has potentially re-introduced an element of uncertainty to people’s lives. While some of the economic effects of the oil spill were immediately evident, others were less clear. In town hall meetings and focus groups conducted prior to this survey, the researchers heard coastal residents describe concerns that ranged from worries about declining property values and loss of a way of life, to fears of long-term health carcinogenic health effects. This representative population study suggests that the economic and health concerns are widespread among coastal residents. As the table below suggests, there may be a substantial relationship between parent’s concerns and uncertainty and their children’s mental health. Although these percentages of children’s mental health distress may reflect parental anxiety rather than clinical symptoms, the potential effects are unmistakable: parental mental health has long been shown to be among the strongest predictors of a child’s mental health and development. The human impact of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast’s “social ecology,” that of its residents, communities, and social networks, may only be accelerated by such uncertainty.

## End Notes

1 United States, Department of Energy. "U.S. Scientific Team Draws on New Data, Multiple Scientific Methodologies to Reach Updated Estimate of Oil Flows from Bp's Well". 2010. Press Release. (June 15, 2010). August 2, 2010.

2 Health Impacts of Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster on Coastal Louisiana Residents, MR Lee and TC Blanchard, Louisiana State University Department of Sociology (July 2010)

3 Prevalence and predictors of mental health distress post-Katrina: findings from the Gulf Coast Child and Family Health Study. DM Abramson, T Stehling-Ariza, R Garfield, and I Redlener, Disaster Med Public Health Prep, 2008. 2(2): p. 77-86; The Legacy of Katrina’s Children: Children: Estimating the numbers of at-risk children in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi, DM Abramson, I Redlener, T Stehling-Ariza, E Fuller, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Research Brief 2007:12. Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York; and the forthcoming Children as Bellwethers of Recovery: Dysfunctional Systems and the Effects of Parents, Households, and Neighborhoods on Serious Emotional Disturbance in Children, Post-Katrina, DM Abramson, YS Park, T Stehling-Ariza, I Redlener, Disaster Med Public Health Prep (in press).

Glossary

### Citation

(2010). Impact on children and families of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbf02a7896bb431f6a085a