A July oil spill cleanup operation (Pic by Deepwater Horizon Response)

The federal government is kicking off several investigations of the health effects of the BP oil spill disaster. Projects will target physical issues, as well as the spill’s impact on Gulf of Mexico residents’ pocketbooks and state of mind. Experts say that all three are related.

“The committee recommends that priority be given to research that is designed to generate evidence about the psychological and behavioral effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” said the Institute of Medicine on Oct. 25, offering recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The institute said the federal health agency’s upcoming study should target workers who depend on the drilling, seafood and other affected industries, as well as residents with a “prior psychological trauma,” such as Hurricane Katrina.

But experts say that the role of mental health in disaster response is poorly understood.

“If one bright spot emerges from this catastrophe, it will be the incorporation of mental health-related emergency response into the core competencies for disaster preparedness,” according to an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The piece, written by a team led by Katherine Yun, a pediatrician and Yale University Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar, said that post-disaster mental health interventions have been of interest since the 1940s, but that the jury is still out on the best strategy.

In the wake of the spill and resulting financial losses, Texas energy production is on its way back since the Obama Administration lifted the moratorium on deepwater drilling last month.

“The employment data, which are the indicator of what has just passed, for Houston in particular and Dallas to some extent, were weaker over the last three months,” said Edward Friedman, a director at Moody’s Analytics. “And that was in part because of the pause in the energy industry.”

But the state’s shrimp industry (the main domestic supplier) continues to suffer due to false perceptions among the public about health risks.

“Gulf fishers and the Gulf seafood industry are facing a number of challenges since the oil spill and the subsequent cleanup operations,” according to the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations. “One challenge is reinstating consumer confidence in their product.”

The report indicated that some consumers mistrust the government’s methods to assess the risk.

Federal agencies charged with seafood safety recently added a test for oil dispersants, according to an Oct. 29 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statement. The agency said that exposure studies on shrimp at a Galveston lab “further support that fish, crustaceans and shellfish quickly clear dispersant from their tissues.”

And the Texas Department of Agriculture is working to communicate that to the public.

Agency spokesperson Bryan Black said that immediately after the spill, the department created display materials for grocery stores and restaurants to “help set the record straight” that there is no reason to believe Texas seafood is contaminated. He also expressed confidence in the morale of workers.

“The dedicated Texans who make up the shrimp and seafood industry are resilient men and women who have overcome natural disasters and hard economic times before,” said Black. “They will continue to work hard to provide for their families and ensure the world can enjoy great seafood from the Texas Gulf.”

Several upcoming studies will examine the impacts on workers in depth.

In addition to the federal health agency’s study on mental and physical issues, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is developing a long-term study. Dale Sandler, the institute’s epidemiology chief, said the agency will examine the psychological impact of economic losses.

“Our study is unique in that we are primarily focused on the potential long-term physical health consequences for oil spill clean-up workers,” wrote Sandler in an email. “The stresses associated with the spill may also have an impact on the overall general health of workers and the community.”

The institute is revising a draft of that study, which the agency’s ethics board will review next week.

And the Environmental Protection Agency is in the early stages of crafting a research and restoration response that could include mental and economic impacts.

John Hankinson, the recently appointed head of EPA’s Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, has acknowledged the economic value of the gulf region. The first meeting, slated for today in Pensacola, Fla., will focus on “challenges in the Gulf, staffing and logistics, and task force objectives,” according to a statement.

In the future, President Barack Obama’s oil spill commission will also evaluate the spill’s impact and restoration of the gulf. A Nov. 8-9 meeting of the commission will focus on the cause of the disaster.

Molly Davis reports on Texas for The American Independent.

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