July 12, 2012 ~ by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Nearly 25,000 people who worked on recovery and cleanup after the 2010 BP oil spill have volunteered for a National Institutes of Health study on the long-term health effects of exposure to oil and chemicals used to disperse it. But NIH researchers want another 15,000 to come forward, and that’s not an easy task.
Some people have moved or changed phone numbers, making it hard for researchers to find them. And then there’s the issue of trust. Some have rejected requests to participate because the study is run by the government and partially financed by BP, and neither enjoys a high level of confidence these days, researchers said.
"But I hope we can reach out and show people that we really do care and want them to participate so we can address many of the health concerns by those who worked on the spill," said Dale Sandler, chief of the epidemiology branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Volunteers who agree to join the research project take a phone survey about their exposure to oil and dispersants and their health conditions. Most are then given a follow-up medical exam at home. After the exam, participants receive a gift card worth $50.
Sandler said it would be a mistake to develop any preliminary findings because researchers must determine whether health problems are a result of the exposure to the oil from the stricken BP rig, from dispersants used to remove the oil or perhaps related to other causes or are pre-existing.
"That takes time,” she said.
Researchers are finding medical and mental health problems with many of the cleanup workers, according to Sandler. Hypertension is a frequent problem, and many interviewed complain of depression.
Continued high unemployment rates for people who had worked in the seafood and oil industry add to the stress many people feel, Sandler said.
The hope is that the study will draw enough participants who had varied exposure to oil and dispersants so researchers can draw conclusions on how to protect people working on future spills. They want to be able to reach conclusions on the specific kind of work, and exposures to oil and dispersants, that leads to the most severe medical problems, Sandler said.
The study, which is budgeted for more than $30 million and is described as the largest health-related oil spill study ever, is expected to run for 10 years.
People interested in participating in the study can call the toll-free number at 1-855-6444853 or visit www.nihgulfstudy.org.
For now, Sandler hopes to complete the telephone interviews by the end of December, with home visits and exams expected to run through April. The plan is for regular follow-ups with some of the study volunteers to update their health conditions over time.
Sandler said NIH researchers are looking for volunteers with a wide variety of involvement with the spill. They must be at least 21 years old and have done oil spill cleanup for at least one day or supported the cleanup effort in some way.