Deepwater Horizon Still Plagues the Health of Children a Decade Later

Research says children suffered physical and mental health as a result of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo illustration. Photo: Handout/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

A Google Image search of “Deepwater Horizon aftermath” brings up an onslaught of sludge — pictures of animals, detritus, and large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico covered in crude oil. Since the massive BP-operated drilling rig exploded and led to a months-long oil spill in 2010, the area has seen massive losses to marine life, the generation of at least 35,000 tons of spill-related solid waste, and oil covering over 57,000 square miles of the Gulf.

The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 17 others, but the physical and mental health effects of the event went far beyond that, largely affecting poor people and communities of color. Thousands of people in the region became sick with a range of ailments six years after the spill, including seizures, dizziness, and leukemia. Eighty-eight workers who helped clean it up had worsening cardiac and pulmonary conditions seven years after exposure. Now, research published in the journal Environmental Hazards shows that children who grew up in the Gulf during the spill and its aftermath also experienced lasting physical and emotional effects.

In 2014, researchers from Columbia University surveyed over 700 parents living in areas of coastal Louisiana that were most affected by the spill. This included the New Orleans metropolitan area, which is 35% Black and 9% Hispanic; 17.5% of the population lives below the poverty line while the national rate is 13.1%. When the oil spill occurred, the population was still recovering from the devastation caused by historic hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, and trying to prepare for future storms and sea-level rise.

“It was not a good feeling to see that kids were still suffering because of the oil spill.”

Of the parents surveyed, 60% said their child experienced respiratory symptoms, vision problems, skin problems, headaches, and/or unusual bleeding — all of which are linked to exposure to crude oil — in the aftermath of the spill. The researchers found that 12% of children and 21% of adults had direct contact with oil, tar, or cleaning agents, and about 36% of them could smell the oil spill.

Meanwhile, 30% of parents said that in the aftermath of the spill, their child experienced mental health issues, like being depressed or very sad, feeling nervous or afraid, having sleeping problems, or having problems getting along with other children.

“It was not a good feeling to see that kids were still suffering because of the oil spill,” says Jaishree Beedasy, PhD, research project director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and lead author on the study, tells OneZero. “And we were very surprised in the sense that they were still not getting all the resources [needed] to help them get better, especially I think in terms of social services and educational opportunities. These were not available to them.” Starting from the early recovery stages, poor people and people of color living in these coastal communities have claimed that they were left out of recovery planning and have had relief funds go to lodges and convention centers instead of ecosystem restoration, leaving them without the support they needed after the spill.

The researchers also asked about the economic impact of the oil spill. Nearly 34% said they lost income, and nearly 13% said they lost their job because of the spill.

The impacts of the oil spill fell disproportionately on parents without a college degree, parents of color, and parents whose household income was less than $70,000 per year. Parents who had a college degree, were white, and/or made $70,000 a year or more were less likely to report physical health issues in their children after the oil spill, Beedasy says. This means children of poor people of color were most likely to experience the negative primary and secondary effects of the spill, like going hungry because their parents couldn’t afford food or developing rashes or blisters after coming in contact with the spill.

“That was something that we saw that was important,” she says. “I know this is expected but when you find it starkly like that, then you have to do something about it.”

To do their part, Beedasy and her associates distributed the results of the study in the communities they surveyed, met with local authorities and policymakers in the region about what they found, and created climate resiliency programs for youth in the region.

Although the fossil fuel industry may be “on the ropes,” as indigenous activist Dallas Goldtooth told OneZero earlier in July, Deepwater Horizon shows us that the impact of the industry on our environment and health could last for decades — and that the pollution and contamination created by these projects aren’t distributed equally.

Here are some other stories about Deepwater Horizon 10 years since the summer of sludge:

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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