Children: The Gulf Oil Spill’s Hidden Victims

Irwin Redlener, a researcher with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, says disasters like the Gulf oil spill often take a devastating mental and physical toll on children. Redlener discusses his new research about the spill's effect on children and how adults can help them cope.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, my commentary.

But, first, we are staying in the Gulf region where since the oil spill, we've been keeping close track of how the lives of people have been affected. Researchers surveyed 1,200 residents to gauge how they and especially their kids are doing. We learned a little bit about that ourselves when we spoke with Brenda Dardar-Robichaux a while back. She was completing her term as principal chief of the United Houma Nation. That's a Native-American tribe whose ancestral home includes some of the oiled marshland along Louisiana's coast. As the summer began, she told us she began to see signs of stress among the children of the tribe.

Ms. BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX (Former Principal Chief, United Houma Nation): To have a kindergarten child ask you how do you spell oil is heartbreaking. To have some of the older children who finally see the opportunity to go to college and now not sure how their family is going to be able to provide the resources for them and to see them express that concern is just heartbreaking. They realize the importance of this oil spill's impact on their lives and on their family, even at such a young age.

MARTIN: Now Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness is documenting the psychological and physical effects of the spill in a systematic way. Researchers asked residents in particular about both the short and long-term impact of the disaster on children. It turns out that there are some rather striking preliminary findings. So we called one of the survey's authors to find out more.

Irwin Redlener is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He's a professor of population and family health at Columbia. He's a pediatrician. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Professor IRWIN REDLENER (Director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, let's talk about some of the discoveries you made about the physical and mental health of children. What were some of the top lines for you?

Prof. REDLENER: The study showed us that more than one of three children are reported to have either physical or mental health or both types of issues that the families are concerned about. And these were not minor. These were severe depression, behavioral problems, sleep disorders. And on the physical side, we're talking about issues like new onset of coughing and wheezing that had not existed before, and lots of lots of rashes that were unusual and appeared after the oil exposures.

MARTIN: It sounds to me, though, you were surprised by the high numbers. You're saying over a third of parents reporting either of these physical or mental health symptoms.

Prof. REDLENER: :Well, actually, I was quite surprised because when you go to the communities and, you know, we, for example, met with lots of families and children in a couple of town meetings, everything looks normal. It's not like going to an environment that's, let's say suffered an earthquake or a hurricane where the physical evidence of the disaster is everywhere.

So things looked somewhat normal in the environments we were in. And then in the meetings, people were expressing these overwhelming levels of anxiety about what they and their children were facing.

And so I was surprised. I was really mostly interested initially in whether this new oil trauma added on top of the slow recovery from Katrina was just causing some over-the-top reactions. And in fact, we got much more than we expected. And the survey confirming even a greater array of problems and challenges that'll have to be dealt with as we go forward.

MARTIN: One of the things that really stands out is the racial disparity.

Prof. REDLENER: Right.

MARTIN: That 17 percent of whites reported that their children were having mental health effects, while 24.2 percent of African-American families reported that their children were having mental health effects. But with the physical problems, the disparity was even greater that 21 percent of the white parents reported that their kids were having physical problems and 40.6 percent for African-Americans. Why might that be?

Prof. REDLENER: Well, there are a lot of reasons. First of all, we also found that there was very significant disparities in terms of family income. So the people with lower family incomes were also more adversely affected. And I think that has to do with where people are living and where the breadwinners are working. And I think the level of exposure for minorities, for African-Americans and for lower income families was just higher.

And furthermore, in terms of nipping things in the bud, I think access to care has always been a problem then in that part of the country and there are lots and lots of people who really don't have access to a regular medical provider or physician or a clinic.

And so for those groups that have more trouble than average, even, in getting access to care, like African-Americans, like people of lower incomes, a lot of problems were not able to be dealt with rapidly and sort of were festering for longer periods of time. And I think thats a reality for many parts of the country where there's just very poor access to care for lots of people.

MARTIN: There's also an interesting figure came to light of how many families, a racial disparity in who has actually gotten some financial relief from BP, that 4.8 percent of whites received some money from BP. Only 1.7 percent of African-Americans received some money from BP. Thats still a pretty low number for both but there's still a big gap there, too. And you have to wonder, does that play some role in the stress?

Dr. REDLENER: Well, I think, well, first of all, this entire situation and the disparities related to outcomes is very, very important. And what I always think about is they're just some underlying issues of disparity that just characterize lots of other kinds of problems and places in America still, unfortunately.

And I think the issues around economic insecurity in the families is becoming increasingly problematic because I spoke to a family that I met in June and then spoke to them a couple days ago. And in June they were holding up and everything was sort of fine, although they had medical problems with the kids. And mom told me on Monday of this week that, in fact, the family was falling apart. BP had not paid dad in the last few weeks. They literally could not pay their bills. The kids were really, really distraught about family dynamics and things were going from bad to worse.

And I think if you start off with a lower income, if youre in a group thats been marginalized to begin with, and I'm just speculating here, and that may be all related to just some longstanding challenges but also some acute problems that have come up in the way people and workers are being handled right now.

MARTIN: Once again, if youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Dr. Irwin Redlener. Hes a pediatrician. He is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. And hes the co-author of a study thats looking at the impact on children and families of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Hes also co-founder of the Childrens Health Fund, which helped sponsor the survey.

I do want to go back again to the whole question of the Katrina-Rita effect...

Dr. REDLENER: Right.

MARTIN: ...and how these two disasters may be affecting each other. Can you determine whether you think that part of the high level of anxiety and stress that people are experiencing and the children in particular is, in fact, a kind of a posttraumatic reaction?

Dr. REDLENER: Well, it is. And actually, it is a very interesting question that you raise and its something that weve been pondering because we're now stepping into unchartered territory as far as this goes, because this is a population that, as you point out, was already very traumatized by Katrina and Rita. Then the recovery from those two storms has been very, very slow and painful, theyre just sort of getting back on their feet, so to speak, and then they have this oil spill. And then there's a third looming issue, which is the possibility of a hurricane during this hurricane season, which, of course, is not over until September.

So we have people that were traumatized once, traumatized a second time and worried about a third trauma that they have no control over. So this entire region is feeling, I think, increasingly fragile to the people who live in these communities along the coast. And if you add to that economic instability at a very high level, because really, the three sources of livelihood are fishing, the oil industry and tourism, and all three of those are deeply affected by this crisis.

So, what we have here is a formula for absolutely unusual kinds of sequential trauma to families, some of which, by the way, who are thinking about moving even out the region, which adds even more stress to an already very overtaxed number of families down there. So, yeah, its bad. And I think unfortunately, we dont know a lot about what happens with multiple traumas like this. And these are also families with a very strong identification to place.

You know, I often say with my own family, if we had to move some place it would be difficult maybe and wed adapt rapidly, but we talked to families in the Gulf and these are families whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents lived in the same exact town, so the attachment to place is very, very powerful.

We found about 25 percent of the families were actively talking about and considering moving out of the region. And that over-talking about leaving has actually, we believe, added to the stress that children are feeling. So, we have so many things going on simultaneously but theres no question, Michel, as you point out, that these are families already traumatized and now dealing with this situation is becoming extraordinarily difficult.

MARTIN: Taking all that youve learned into account, and I dont know if you consider this beyond the scope of your expertise, but I would like to ask what, what would help? I mean obviously it would help if things could go back to the way they were; they can't. So what would help?

Dr. REDLENER: Well, what would help, first of all, would be an acknowledgement that theres a very substantial human dimension to this tragedy. So what has really distressed me a bit is to see these last few days how eager both government and BP seem to be to declare kind of case closed here, the crisis is over.

And that flies in the face of two things: one is the observation, which is entirely anecdotal, it may not even be accurate, but at least the perception by a lot of people who live there and work there that they're still seeing oil throughout the marshes. Theres oil just under the surface. Its - for the people that are there, they're not actually buying this yet.

But the second issue is that even if weve gotten a technological fix to a broken deepwater drill well, we still have the residual reality, the emotional cost that the situation has taken and weve got to deal with that. So, to answer the question what do we need to do: we first of all need to acknowledge of the fact that theres still really big problems that families are experiencing. Secondly, we have to make sure that there are sufficient resources in the communities to assess and help people who have problems, especially children.

A woman I spoke to again, earlier this week said her child had a very severe rash which she thinks is related to oil exposure. I said, are you going to go to the doctor? She said, our pediatrician, if we can get into see the pediatrician, is at least an hour and a half away from where we are. So theres access to care issues, and thats one of the reasons that the Childrens Health Fund, my other organization, is going to be bringing mobile pediatric care down to the region.

So we need to get capacity in there to take care of children and people who are suffering from either physical and/or psychological issues. They need to be supported. They need to be acknowledged. And we need to help bring some stability in there. And that will most definitely help.

But one of the underlying challenges here that people who live in an environment of extreme uncertainty, which is what this is, because what we know from the Exxon Valdez accident which happened in 1989, that there are still problems coming up. We dont know how to reassure people that quote/unquote, things are going to be okay. We dont know that thats the case. We dont even know the short-term affect of exposure to the dispersants or to the oil. And we certainly dont know all that much about the long-term consequences.

So dealing with people who have uncertainty and instability economically is tricky business. But its doable. We just need to have enough resources in the community to make sure that those who need help are getting help, those who need information are getting accurate information. So, just declaring the crisis over is probably the least helpful thing we could do right now, unless we're talking specifically and explicitly only about capping that well.

MARTIN: Dr. Irwin Redlener is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Hes a pediatrician. Hes a professor at Columbia. He was one of the authors of a study taking a look at the impact on children and families of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. If you'd like to read more about the studys findings, well have a link to it on our website.

Dr. Redlener joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us. Keep us posted, please.

Dr. REDLENER: Sure will. Thanks for having me.

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