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NIH Begins Study of Oil Spill's Impact on Residents

Today, the U.S. government launched what's being billed as the largest study ever conducted of how an oil spill affects human health. The Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study will survey Gulf of Mexico residents who helped with the cleanup of last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill and follow them for at least 5 years.

The $19 million study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) will contact people known to have been involved in the gulf cleanup efforts and ask them to undergo physical examinations and fill out questionnaires about their health. This direct approach will be more encompassing than simply relying on extant medical records, principal investigator Dale Sandler, head of the epidemiology branch at NIEHS, explained at a teleconference today. "People might not be complaining, they might just feel lousy and not report it," she says.

The study team plans to contact 100,000 people with the goal of enrolling 55,000 in the study. The first letters will go out today, and efforts will ramp up in April. The questionnaire and findings will also be accessible on the study's Web site. "We're trying to set an example for doing research in daylight," Sandler said.

The National Institutes of Health will put up about $19 million, including $8 million from a special fund for crosscutting initiatives managed by NIH Director Francis Collins, and $6 million from BP, which played no part in the study's design and will not be involved in analyzing the results.

One focus of the study will be to determine how people were exposed to the oil, including through air pollution from controlled burns, direct contact with the oil or dispersants, or consuming contaminated seafood. The NIEHS group is working with toxicologists and local health officials to pin down biomarkers for these and other sources of contamination that may result in respiratory difficulties, rashes, chemicals in the bloodstream, and, in the longer term, the increased risk of cancer among the cleanup crew. Sandler said that her team will also examine anecdotal accounts of oil-spill related illnesses that have been reported.

Sandler said her team won't be able to blame the oil spill for any particular health problem reported by residents, many of whom have little access to health care and are exposed routinely to other health hazards. All the same, any recurring patterns of illness could be used as the basis for individual lawsuits against BP.