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Houma Today: ‘Red flag’ in oil-spill health study

By Nikki Buskey, Staff Writer

HOUMA — A survey of select coastal communities, including Chauvin, Dulac and Grand Isle, found that almost half of residents experienced ailments that could be oil-spill related.

The Louisiana environmental group that helped conduct the survey said the results are a “red flag,” a sign that more attention is warranted and more aid should be directed to impacted areas.

The survey, which questioned 954 residents in Terrebonne, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, was conducted between July and October by volunteers from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental nonprofit, Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy and Patagonia Clothing Company. The survey sought to determine if Gulf Coast residents experienced health and economic impacts because of spill.

Anne Rolfes, executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, compared the health symptoms to those found after disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The 9/11 first responders couldn’t get any redress for their health concerns until a bill was passed in September,” Rolfes said. “We’re getting the warning signs right now, and we don’t want to be in a situation down the line where we say, ‘Oh, there were health problems. But now it’s too late.’ It’s time to wave a red flag and get some intervention here.”

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal research program, recently launched a long-term study to monitor the health of tens of thousands of oil-spill workers and volunteers.

Among the findings, 48 percent of those surveyed by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade reported an unusual spike of at least one health symptom. The most frequently reported symptoms were coughs, sinus problems and eye and skin irritation, which are consistent with chemical exposure, according to the Bucket Brigade. A third of respondents reported using over-the-counter medication more often since the spill. They also reported scant access to health care and medical professionals versed in toxicology and chemical exposure.

In addition, 44 percent of survey respondents said the spill put their household’s primary provider out of work. Nearly a quarter reported needing, but not receiving, economic assistance due to lost income.

Betty Doud, a resident of Grand Isle who worked with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade on the survey, said she’s concerned for the health of her community.

“There’s this hacking cough everyone has, a sore throat, itchy eyes. Nothing’s effective. I have one friend who’s been to the doctor four times and nothing helps,” Doud said. “We need to get testing for these people so we can find out what’s causing the problem.”

Doud also said she’s seen a large number of dead animals and tarballs washing up on Louisiana beaches.

“This is not anything normal,” she said. “I’ve been on this beach for 14 years. I go out and walk it all the time.”

The majority of respondents, about 64 percent, in Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines, expressed concern about seafood contamination.

In Terrebonne, 92 residents in Chauvin and Cocodrie and 157 residents in Dulac were surveyed by volunteers who went door to door and visited community centers like grocery stores and gas stations.

Forty-four percent of Dulac residents and 37 percent of Chauvin residents said their livelihood was impacted by the spill, and 22 percent of Dulac residents and 12 percent of Chauvin residents said they needed but hadn’t received economic assistance.

In addition, 30 percent of residents in Dulac and 34 percent of residents in Chauvin said they experienced an unusual increase in symptoms like cough, skin irritation and nausea. About 15 percent of residents in both communities believe they were exposed to crude oil, and 10 percent of residents in both communities said the spill made them consider moving.

“This is about the experiences of the people on the ground versus government information,” Rolfes said. “I don’t doubt that the people in these (government) programs have been working quite hard, but they just haven’t been reaching people in the communities.”

Proposed solutions, Rolfe said, came from suggestions by those surveyed.

They include:

– Using spill-related money to provide long-term health care access for those with oil-exposure-related illnesses, instead of continuing to study them.

– Providing residents with access to health-care providers with experience diagnosing chemical exposure.

– Ensuring residents have continued access to mental-health care.

– Establishing an ongoing program to track public health after the spill.

– Train and hire local residents to conduct independent seafood sampling.

– Include local community members in coastal-restoration planning.

– Provide jobs to locals through new environmental restoration and cleanup activities.

– Improve the claims process to help get money to those who need it.