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Research Review

Five Years After Gulf Spill, Residents Still Have Significant Mental Health Problems

Five years ago, on April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded; over the next five months, more than 206 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, affecting more than 950 miles of shoreline.

The spill caused enormous environmental damage, and also caused great stress among Gulf Coast residents. Even five years after the disaster, a significant percentage of people there continue to deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, says Lynn Grattan, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She's been studying residents' reactions, and says the spill continues to cause psychological problems.

"The spill is out of the headlines now, but those who live along the Gulf Coast are still dealing with this," says Grattan. "Our research shows clearly that this disaster has had long-lasting and corrosive psychological effects, extending well beyond the areas where there was direct exposure to oil. We found exceedingly high levels of stress and anger."

For many, emotional distress was tied closely with income loss. In the months after the spill, fishing and other coastal industries were sharply curtailed. The spill also affected tourism.

Grattan has focused her work on two areas, Baldwin County, Alabama, and Franklin County, Florida. She and her colleagues at the University of Florida have conducted several surveys and have published several studies over the past five years. They interviewed several hundred subjects. The results underscore the need to develop strategies to deal with psychological stress related to human-caused disasters.

Grattan has studied watermen on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, as well as fisherman in the Pacific Northwest and in the Virgin Islands. Much of her research focuses on the neurological effects of toxic chemicals that end up in the marine food chain. In the Gulf spill, she found no evidence so far that chemicals related to the spills have led to neurological effects in humans.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

--Source: University of Maryland Medical Center/School of Medicine