First Spill Studies Show Gulf Kids Are At Risk

Researchers are beginning to make their first conclusions about the deeper effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf residents. Host Liane Hansen talks with Dr. Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University about a study he led on the effects of the BP spill on Gulf residents.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Researchers are beginning to make their first conclusions about the deeper effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf residents. In July, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, at Columbia University, conducted a telephone survey of 1,200 residents of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.

Dr. Irwin Redlener directed the survey, and he joins us from our New York bureau. Dr. Redlener, welcome to the program.

Dr. IRWIN REDLENER (National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Author, "Americans at Risk"): Thanks, Liane. Glad to be here.

HANSEN: Really, one of the survey's most startling results is that 30 percent of children living within 10 miles of the water have, according to their parents, experienced either a medical or mental illness since the spill. What kinds of illnesses are we talking about?

Dr. REDLENER: The medical side included very severe rashes, or coughing or wheezing that was otherwise unexplained - and then a host of psychological consequences, which including depression, difficulty sleeping, and a variety of other problems that these children were expressing. Even 9-year-old children were talking about their way of life being over. That was a pretty hair-raising experience, to hear so many young, young people talk about the end of a way of life.

HANSEN: And what about the adults?

Dr. REDLENER: Well, the adults also have just an unrelenting amount of anxiety about the consequences of this massive oil catastrophe down there. Tremendous instability in families around livelihood, around the possibility of having -maybe to move away from the region - by the way, which about one out of four families have already been talking about.

And the families themselves are having lots of discord. Very stable families under these kinds of pressures, are feeling lots of stress. There's been an increase in domestic violence - and even reports of suicide in some of these coastal communities.

HANSEN: Is it possible to say with certainty which illnesses, either psychological or physical, are directly tied to the spill?

Dr. REDLENER: Well, that's a very good question, and the answer to that right now is no. What we set out to establish was that there was the appearance of new symptoms. And then the question of, well, are they actually related, can we prove they're related to the oil disaster? No, but anecdotally, the sense of physicians and clinicians whove been down there is that there is some tie. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to explain what would've caused a sudden, very dramatic increase in a lot of these symptoms that, as I say, did not exist before the oil spill.

HANSEN: In terms of symptoms, did you see more in lower-income households?

Dr. REDLENER: Yes. We saw significantly more in lower-income households. And this really reinforces a well-known notion that people who are vulnerable, for whatever reason, before a disaster - because of income, other disparities, racial disparities - those kind of individuals and populations are much more vulnerable.

HANSEN: Is it because, perhaps, lower-income households, it's more difficult for them to get either medical or psychological care? They're underserved, in other words?

Dr. REDLENER: That is true. And the families that are most vulnerable and this was true with Katrina - those that have the least are affected the most.

HANSEN: You mentioned Hurricane Katrina, and I understand your center studied Gulf residents back then - five years ago - as well. Does Katrina's legacy compound the difficulties that these coastal residents face now?

Dr. REDLENER: These are multiple traumatized populations and communities. And then there's what were referring to as, in essence, a failed recovery for many, many families, post - even five years post-Katrina debacle. And on top of that comes the oil spill. So we're in really uncharted territory, as far as understanding the impact of these multiple psychological traumas.

HANSEN: Dr. Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He's also author of the book "Americans at Risk." He joins us from our New York bureau. Thank you.

Dr. REDLENER: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

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