The coastal areas of the Mississippi Delta – already imperiled by the enduring effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – are once again threatened by disaster. Unlike the devastating natural disasters of 2005, the threat this time is man-made. On April 20, 2010, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven crewmen. The resulting fire could not be extinguished and, on April 22, 2010, Deepwater Horizon sank, leaving its oil well gushing and causing the largest offshore oil spill in United States history. While the deeply human tragedy is already readily apparent – 11 dead and 17 injured – the full ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have yet to be realized. Beyond the economic and environmental impact, the Deepwater Horizon spill is likely to be an unprecedented incident for public health.
Millions of gallons of crude oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico since the disaster began. According to the latest estimates, over 90 million gallons of crude oil have escaped from the deep water oil well – enough oil to fill nearly 140 Olympic size swimming pools. 78,000 square miles of federal waters are now off-limits to fishing and over 68 miles of shoreline have been polluted as a result of the spill. The coastal south depends on both its shoreline and the bordering waterways economically – through tourism and fishing. Undeniably, both industries will suffer with closed beaches and waterways. In turn, the livelihoods of many in coastal areas are on the line. When faced with competing needs during an economic downturn, many choose to postpone their health care needs in favor of other more urgent basic needs. , Depending on how long the effects of the oil spill are felt by industries and, in turn, impact individuals’ health care decisions, the spill could be devastating beyond the environmental impact.
While the long-term public health impact of the disaster are hard to imagine currently, there are immediate reasons to be concerned. Already, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has reported 71 spill-related illnesses to the CDC. Fifty of the illnesses, with symptoms ranging from respiratory distress to dizziness, came from workers directly involved in the cleanup of the spill. Perhaps more troubling is that 21 of the illnesses came from amongst the general public in coastal areas. Public health officials have their hands full with threats that must be mitigated. Foremost, workers involved in the cleanup effort must be protected from harm. OSHA warns workers of at least 12 potential threats to worker safety in its “Deepwater Horizon/Mississippi Canyon 252 Oil Spill” fact sheet. The CDC and the EPA are also monitoring water and air quality, water and beach safety in coastal areas, in an effort to protect the general public. Even more concerning is the possible effect the spill could have on the food supply, which – if realized – could send the effects of the oil spill coast-to-coast or even internationally.