BP Disaster a Year Later, Healthcare Crisis Worsens

Originally published on IPS.  Written by Lily Hough. 

WASHINGTON, Jul 28, 2011 (IPS) - When news of the disastrous BP oil well explosion reached the residents of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana last April, Mayor Tim Kerner did the only thing he could think of to stop the oil from destroying his community. He encouraged everyone in his town to join him on the water, working day and night throughout the disaster to clean-up the spill.

Now, one year after BP managed to cap the runaway well that fouled the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated five million barrels of oil, most of those people are ill.

"I'm afraid my neighbors will come to me and say, I wouldn't have listened to you and kept my job if I knew it would kill me," Kerner said.

Kerner's story was one of many shared by Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, at a briefing Wednesday evening, the day after she led a delegation to the Gulf Coast to assess the scope of the emerging healthcare crisis in the wake of the BP drilling disaster.

"The residents are sick," Kennedy told IPS. "They don't know what the exact cause of their illness is, but because they never suffered this way before the spill and they were all out on their fishing boats throughout the clean-up, they suspect this has something to do with the toxins." 

According to Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade - an environmental justice group that partnered with Tulane University's Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy to conduct an on- the-ground survey of residents living in impacted communities - nearly 75 percent of those who believe they were exposed to crude oil or dispersant reported experiencing symptoms consistent with chemical exposure.

"Coughing, respiratory irritation, and eye irritation were the most common," Rolfes told IPS. "[Respondents] described that the symptoms came on suddenly and they left suddenly and that would be consistent with getting some sort of wave of chemical exposure, even when we took things like allergies into account."

But Kennedy told IPS that local physicians are hesitant to link their patients' symptoms to the oil.

"They don't have the expertise to make a diagnosis in toxicology, they don't know how to treat that diagnosis, and if they do attempt to treat it, they risk losing their medical licenses," she said. Read more at IPS.