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NIEHS Oil Spill Response Intensifies

By Ed Kang
July 2010

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Miller testified to congressional committees investigating the spill (watch the full Senate hearing (http://help.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=18216a73-5056-9502-5d8b-6b53e11f728d) Exit NIEHS) saying, "One of the most important take-away messages is that there is a clear need for additional health monitoring and research to underpin our collective understanding and public health decisions." 

Two months following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the loss of 11 lives, NIEHS continues to expand its role in the response effort. The Institute is widening its focus from developing training and informational resources for the protection of oil spill workers, to identifying the health monitoring and research activities needed to further understand any adverse health effects.

Protection of oil spill workers paramount

The director of the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP), Chip Hughes, and his team have had a continuous presence in the Gulf Coast region since a few days following the explosion, working with multiple partners and other federal agencies to provide worker safety training.

Hughes, who has been the face of NIEHS in the region, described the urgent need for safety and health training for thousands of newly recruited workers. "As professionals and volunteers are mobilized, they need to be aware that they are working around potentially hazardous materials. Training is a critical first step for their protection."

Transcript (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/july/docs/transcript-miller.pdf)  Download Adobe Reader (35KB)

As of June 10, British Petroleum (BP), the company that owns and operates the failed rig, reported 30,500 people had participated in safety courses that use materials (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oilspill) developed and supported by NIEHS WETP. Various levels are training are available including an intensive 40-hour course on Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response, commonly known as HAZWOPER training, and shorter awareness-level courses for those who will have minimal contact with oil spill products. The courses are being provided in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Additionally, more than 5,000 pocket-sized booklets titled "Safety and Health Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers" have been distributed in multiple languages to instructors, safety officials, front-line responders participating in the British Petroleum Vessels of Opportunity Program, as well as to beach workers in the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team. 

"The protection of human life is our number one priority and we have been able to provide immediate assistance in the oil spill response," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS/NTP. "We must be sure that those doing the work to repair the damage to the Gulf are kept safe."

NIEHS leads research efforts to close knowledge gaps

In addition to worker education and safety efforts, NIEHS has proactively pursued several avenues to help close knowledge gaps and foster research needed to support science-based public health decisions and actions.

While experts agree there is potential for human health effects, understanding and quantifying these effects requires further study.

"Determination of actual exposure and risk is not a trivial task," said Aubrey Miller, M.D., senior medical advisor to the director of NIEHS, in statements to the U.S. Senate and House committees investigating the spill. "NIH is exploring a variety of different funding mechanisms and programs to carry out what will be important research related to this particular disaster and the people whose health may be affected by it."

On June 15, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., announced an investment of $10 million to support NIEHS research on the potential human health effects of the oil spill. A group of clean-up workers and Gulf residents will be recruited, and their health histories and tissue samples will be collected. Researchers will also monitor oil spill workers for respiratory, immunological, and neurobehavioral effects. Information about the nature of their exposures, including any clean-up work performed, will help to establish a valuable baseline of information. 

NIEHS has also established a grant program for time-sensitive research and community education to quickly fund research on the public health impact of the oil spill, in addition to its co-funding of the Centers for Oceans and Human Health with the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Centers (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/programs/oceans/) have responded by providing expertise to health departments, monitoring beach conditions in real time, and dispatching researchers for water and wildlife sampling and analyses. Additional "rapid response" funds have also been provided by NSF to help carry out these efforts.

And more is on the way, as an Institute of Medicine public meeting June 22-23 made clear (see text box). NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., told an audience of the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors June 21, "Stay tuned," as new developments occur almost on a daily basis.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the extent of the oil spill as of mid-June
Map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the extent of the oil spill as of mid-June.


Science Workshop Examines Health Issues

At the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened a public meeting (http://www.iom.edu/Activities/PublicHealth/OilSpillHealth/2010-JUN-22.aspx) Exit NIEHS June 22-23 in New Orleans to look at ways to prevent and monitor long-term health impacts of the oil spill. The IOM, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is an independent, nonprofit organization that provides unbiased advice to decision makers and the public - its goal is to improve public health.

Participants from across many federal and state agencies, as well as private and academic institutions, reviewed current knowledge about the human health effects of exposure to oil, weathered oil products, and dispersants, and identified gaps in this knowledge. Researchers identified the populations most at risk for health problems as a result of the oil spill and considered ways to effectively communicate to these groups. Monitoring the spill's potential negative effects on health and gathering data to further understand the risks to human health were also discussed.

NIEHS representatives in attendance were: Aubrey Miller, M.D., senior medical advisor to the director; James Remington, Worker Education and Training Branch analyst; William Suk, Ph.D., Superfund Hazardous Substances Basic Research and Training Program director; Scott Masten, Ph.D., National Toxicology Program staff scientist; Dale Sandler, Ph.D., Epidemiology Branch chief; and, Chris Portier, Ph.D., NIEHS senior advisor.



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