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Legal Battles Over Oil Spill Could Foul Research On Health Effects

Workers clean up a stretch of oil-contaminated beach in Grand Isle, La. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Workers clean up a stretch of oil-contaminated beach in Grand Isle, La.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When anthropologist Lawrence Palinkas recruited people affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska two decades ago for a research project on its social and health effects, he promised them confidentiality.

So his research subjects were surprised when lawyers began knocking on their doors, armed with intimate details they'd revealed to Palinkas — medical histories, suicide attempts, stories of domestic abuse, financial ruin and broken families.

Some of the lawyers wanted to represent people suing Exxon. Others represented the oil company.

Now, Palinkas warns, history is about to repeat itself in a brewing legal free-for-all over the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster that's fouling the waters, wetlands and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

He shared his cautionary tale researching the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill at a two-day workshop on the health effects of oil spills, hastily convened in New Orleans by the Institute of Medicine at the behest of the Obama administration.

Palinkas wasn't to blame for the confidentiality breaches in Alaska. In fact, he had no idea that his data would be subpoenable once the lawsuits started flying.

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"Even raw data became subject to subpoena by courts, including names and addresses of research participants," says Patrinkas, a social anthropologist at the University of Southern California. "Researchers cannot guarantee the confidentiality of the individual providing that data."

It's already beginning in the Gulf. Lawyers are all over the airwaves, soliciting clients who think they deserve compensation from the oil spill damage to their lives and livelihoods.

The issue has big implications — for scientists, for the people affected by the spill and for a society that needs solid research on the health and social impact of these man-made disasters.

At the New Orleans conference, one scientist after another lamented the dearth of information on the health effects of oil spills.

Even though more than 30 major oil spills have occurred since the 1960s, researchers have investigated only about a quarter of them for their toxic effects on individuals and communities. And many of the resulting studies have been small, short-term and not very well executed.

The inability of researchers to guarantee the confidentiality of people who agreed to participate in their projects "stifles the free flow of information and ideas," Palinkas warns.

It also hampers the publication of research results. During the Exxon Valdez episode, Palinkas says, "for a period very little was published because it was pretty much all subject to review by attorneys and expert witnesses. It just created a whole new dimension to conducting research – any form of community-based research — that academics generally don't have to deal with."

The Exxon Valdez litigation trail stretched out for 20 years, until a U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago. No one expects the Gulf oil spill litigation story will be shorter.

It's not clear whether there's a way to resolve the tension between scientific research and legal accountability. (It's an issue that news reporters are well aware of. Courts have been increasingly reluctant to grant them "privilege" to withhold the identities of confidential sources – many of whom would not provide information without assurance of confidentiality.)

Palinkas wonders if a federal "certificate of confidentiality" might help. "Many times it's done in studies of drug abuse funded by the National Institutes of Health," he says. "It has limited protections."

And he acknowledges it might not do any good at all in research on oil spills, billions of dollars in compensation are at stake – not to mention criminal liability.