top of page

Exposure Oil: Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico (BP) Study

Tragedy in the Gulf: The Deep Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

by Katherine Fite, BS Candidate

George Mason University, Environmental Science and Public Policy

Introduction/ Timeline

On April 20, 2010, at 10 pm Central time, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, causing the worst and largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the modern world.

The deep-sea oil rig was located 50 miles off of the shore of Venice, Louisiana. It was built in 2001 by Hyundai Heavy Industries and was then owned by the offshore drilling company Transocean and leased to BP in 2008. The Deepwater Horizon broke the world record in drill depth, operating in 8,000 feet of water and drilling 32,000 feet into the Earth’s crust in search for crude oil reserves.

The April 20 explosion, caused by a methane gas bubble, claimed the lives of 11 workers on board and injured 17 others. For two days, the rig burned uncontrollably and finally sank on April 22. That same day, a 1-mile by 5-mile oil slick appeared in the water. The US Coast Guard confirmed the next day that crude oil was leaking in multiple places at the well at a rate of 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons a day. Vessels were dispatched to contain the oil spill, which at the time was only 30 miles offshore from the US coastline.

By the end of April, the oil spill spread over 120 square miles of ocean and threatened the coast of Louisiana. The oil spill estimate was increased to 5,000 barrels/ 210,000 gallons a day and efforts to cap the flow were all unsuccessful. In addition, the Coast Guard agreed the best possible solution to get rid of portions of the oil slick was to set it on fire, which released a huge plume into the sky. On May 4, the edges of the oil slick reached the Louisiana shoreline. At this point, the oil spill had caught the attention of the nation. President Obama met with federal, state and local Louisiana officials and announced that millions of dollars would be allocated to the oil spill relief efforts. BP chief executive promised that BP will pay for the oil spill cleanup and was actively working on containing or capping the leaking oilpipes.

Throughout May, the oil slick continued to spread and crude oil was still leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Over 46,000 miles of federal waters were closed to fishing. An estimated 18.6 to 29.5 million gallons of oil had leaked into the Gulf since the explosion. In addition, the oil dispersant Corexit was used to clean up and degrade part of the oil slick. On June 1, the oil reached Alabama and Mississippi and nine days later, it hit the Florida coast. Government scientists increased the estimate of oil flowing into the ocean to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels, or almost 2.5 million gallons a day. In addition, BP agreed to place $20 billion in an escrow fund to compensate those Gulf residents affected by the disaster. At this point, a small portion of the oil was being diverted but thousands of barrels were still leaking into the ocean. BP also stated they would donate the net revenue it received from the sale of that recovered oil from the spill site to the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

At the end of June, Vice President Joe Biden announced that multiple government agencies and health and fisheries officials would collaborate to study, sample and set safety levels for seafood and other food products coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Three months after the explosion, on July 15, a new cap was placed on the leak and valves to the pipeline are shut off, stopping the oil from flowing into the ocean. In September the oil pipe was permanently sealed and officials formally declared an end to the worst oil spill in US history.

Immediate Response/ Oil Slick Containment

As previously mentioned, millions of gallons of crude oil had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. As the oil slick crept toward the US coast and threatened the coastlines of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, BP and Coast Guard officials scrambled to try to contain and get rid of the oil. Skimmers, booms, dispersant and even methodical burning of the oil were used to control the spill.

Skimmers are used to remove oil floating on the surface of the water. Floating barriers called containment booms gather the oil into a confined puddle. The skimmers are then used to collect the oil to be reused or disposed. In addition, containment booms were used in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to prevent the oil slick from washing up onshore and to block wetlands and marshlands from oil contact. However, these containment booms seemed to be unsuccessful. Many booms ended up on shore, beached and rendered useless since they were no longer in the water. In addition, huge amounts of oil were flowing past or between the containment booms that hadn’t yet washed up on shore. Although useful in theory, BP’s primary method of prevention of oil spreading was not doing a good job.

Another method of oil control and removal used in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster was the burning of the oil slick. Burning was a viable option due to the notion that birds, mammals, and other wildlife would have a better chance of escaping a fire than the oil slick. During the three months that oil was leaking into the Gulf, more than 300 fires were started and 10.3 million gallons of oil were set ablaze. This technique is effective in removing oil before it reaches the shore, but there are some major drawbacks to burning uncontained oil at sea. For one, burning of oil is only effective when the oil is concentrated to the surface and at least a few inches thick. However, most of the oil in the Gulf was very spread out and only forms a very thin layer at the surface. The oil at the surface in the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t contain enough chemical potential energy to effectively set the adjacent oil on fire. In addition, burning oil on the Gulf proved to be detrimental to the environment. For example, environmental groups claimed that several young sea turtles were burned alive during the boom-controlled burning of oil. Also, these fires caused smoke plumes to rise hundreds of feet into the air, potentially disorienting birds flying through them. Overall, the effect on marine life was unclear and largely unknown. Another problem with burning the crude oil is the air pollution it produced and its negative effect on air quality. Crude oil contains impurities due to its unrefined nature. The fires could have emitted more than 15,00 tons of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, VOCs, methane, sulfur oxide and water vapor. Though the burning of crude oil seemed beneficial, there were some negative trade-offs.

Lastly, BP officials used a chemical dispersant to get of parts of the crude oil. BP’s primary chemical dispersant used in the Gulf was Corexit: types 9500 and 9527. Corexit does not directly get rid of the oil, instead, it breaks up the crude oil into smaller droplets. These smaller droplets of oil sink into the ocean, which are then thought to be broken down and biodegraded naturally by the environment. It was primarily used to prevent the oil from pooling at the surface and reaching the shore. During the spill, 1.8 million gallons of the Corexit dispersant was poured into the Gulf. However, it proved to be not very effective. In Louisiana alone, Corexit was only 54% effective in dispersing the oil. Even the EPA pulled the plug on the use of Corexit in the Gulf in May of 2010 due to its ineffectiveness. Many studies and researchers show that Corexit do not in fact cleanup virtually any oil, instead, the oil droplets sank deeper into the ocean where it then made its way into aquatic ecosystems. In addition, Corexit is highly toxic to the ecosystem, wildlife and even poses a threat to human health.

The above techniques were all utilized with the goal to ultimately remove as much crude oil as possible from the Gulf of Mexico. However, this goal was not achieved. In early August, the energy adviser to the White House (Carol Browner) made a statement saying that a newly published assessment found that more than ¾ of the oil leaked into the Gulf had been captured, burned off or biodegraded. However, two weeks later, senior government scientists disputed this assessment. They said, in fact, 75% of the oil actually remained in the Gulf and there was a 22-mile plume of oil in the ocean. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s senior scientist, Bill Lehr, said, “most of that [oil] is still in the environment”. Many scientists also believe that the oil will leave an imprint that will last in the Gulf for decades to come. Therefore, it is concluded that BP’s cleanup efforts were futile and proved largely ineffective.

Affects of Crude Oil & Dispersants on Human Health

Perhaps, the most pressing concern associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the negative effects crude oil and chemical dispersants may potentially have on human health.

Crude oil, like the one leaked from the Deepwater Horizon pipeline, contains a bevy of chemicals. Crude oil mostly consists of hydrocarbons, or chemicals composed of hydrogen and carbon. In addition, benzene, chromium, iron, mercury, nickel, nitrogen, sulfur, xylene and toluene are found in oil. The combination of chemical compounds found in crude oil is termed petroleum hydrocarbons. Each of these chemical compounds has a specified toxicity and many are highly toxic. Short- term exposure of crude oil can result in dizziness, euphoria, nausea, blurry vision and headaches. However, long- term health impacts are extremely serious: some chemicals in oil can cause certain types of cancer, chromosomal abnormalities and damage DNA material.

As previously mentioned, Corexit 9500 was the most common dispersant used in breaking down oil in the Gulf. Like crude oil, Corexit contains toxic chemicals. In fact, Corexit is one the most toxic dispersants on the market according to the EPA. Only 2.6 parts per million of Corexit mixed with oil is required to kill 50% of fish that come in direct contact with it. One gallon of the dispersant is capable of rendering 383,140 gallons of water toxic at lethal dose 50 to fish. It has numerous and severe health effects, including problems with the respiratory system, nervous system, the liver, and kidneys. Most people experience stomach pain, headaches, nausea, skin irritation and blurred vision with short-term exposure.

The crude oil and dispersant are affecting people by various routes and methods. For one, crude oil in the oil slick is being washed up on shore either as pure oil or in the form of tar balls. Tar balls are seen on beaches, shorelines, wetlands, and other shallow aquatic ecosystems on the Gulf Coast. These small balls of oil can adhere to sand, rocks, marine grasses, and even animals. Direct contact, usually through the skin or inhaled, in places of contamination can result in oil exposure and dispersant exposure. In addition, oil and dispersant chemicals are evaporating from the ocean into the air, where they are then carried as oil vapor/ dispersant vapor to the coast and further inland. Oil vapor inhalation has its own adverse health effects: upper respiratory problems including, burning throat, eyes, sinuses, coughing and sinus and ear infections.

In fact, there are several documented incidents in the Gulf of Mexico where people have fallen ill after having direct contact with water contaminated with oil or dispersant. One group feeling the burden of oil contamination is clean up workers and crew, including BP workers, local fisherman and residents.

Since the start of the spill, BP has hired thousands of fisherman and even local residents to assist the oil cleanup efforts. These fisherman and residents are often given an abbreviated, crash course in safety and clean-up procedures and are sent out to beaches and shorelines to tackle the spill; often with out a full set of equipment or respirators. These respirators are imperative to preventing fumes and vapors emitting from the oil slick from being inhaled and entering the body. As a result, some fishermen experienced headaches, loss of consciousness, upper respiratory irritation and even shortness of breath. In late May, a number of shrimpers working for BP were transported to the hospital after experiencing headaches, nausea, dizziness and chest pains. However, BP still failed to provide respirators to all works and many hired fisherman and locals who experienced health problems during the clean up were scared to speak up of for fear for losing their jobs.

Another Gulf of Mexico resident, Jamie Simon, who worked to cleanup the spill, experienced health problems. She said that after working for six months on a barge, helping with the oil spill cleanup efforts, she suffered from arrhythmia, vomiting, dizziness, ear infections, upper respiratory illnesses and memory loss. Another documented case was of daughters of a BP worker exhibiting flu like symptoms, which turned out to be crude oil exposure. A BP charter boat captain says that his daughters had high levels of toxins in their blood stream after suffering with flu-like symptoms for weeks. The BP worker said he also experienced some illness after working directly in the oil slick for months.

Nona B., another Gulf Coast resident, says that her son, a member of the US Navy has also felt the effects of the oil spill. “My 22 year old son is showing signs of chemical poisoning. Nose bleeds, etc.”

The Coastal Warrior’s webpage states, “there are finding high concentrations of 2- Butoxyethanol in the clean-up workers blood of the things this stuff can cause is blood pressure.”

Yet, clean-up workers aren’t the only ones experiencing the negative impacts of oil and dispersant exposure. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents are coming forward with a broad range of illnesses, all suspected to be the result of oil or dispersant vapor blowing in from the coast. One environmental scientist, Wilma S, estimates that more than 100,000 Gulf Coast residents are experiencing illness as a result of the oil spill.

More and more illnesses seem to cropping up throughout the southeast. The most common systems include upper respiratory irritation.

Deborah Benton of Alabama states, “when I got out of my car in Orange Beach, I would immediately have a headache, trouble breathing, stopped up sinuses, and cough”. Florida resident Victoria E. seemed to have a similar experience recalling, “one day my brother was having an asthma attack and I stuck my head out the door to see if something was in the air, and had this horrible burning sensation in my nostrils and throat. No smell. But since then I’ve had three sinus infections and have been on inhalers ands steroids and they just keep coming back. My doctor says everyone is sick and has told me to stay away from the beaches.” Although Victoria could not smell oil vapors in the air, Deborah Benton said “the closer I get to the Gulf…we could smell the oil a few days before it even hit the beaches” and said that “weird symptoms seem to have gotten worse”. She herself has experienced “ health issues all summer [of 2010]; headaches have increased frequency, burning eyes, throat, breathing issues and sinus drainage”. She also says that her son-in-law “is suffering from myoplasma pneumonia and has been sick since May 1”. Alarmingly, Deborah also says that he “lives ¾ mile from the Gulf. He tells me that quite a few people are sick in their area” and her “facebook friends have been hitting me with all the symptoms they have been suffering with all summer”. In addition, Nona B says, “Eli [her son] called me today to tell [me] that his nose has been bleeding for days”. Michelle R. has said that her daughter experienced the same thing, “[she] has also suffered numerous nosebleeds since the oil spill. They started around the time they started burning the oil”.

Though upper respiratory infections and illnesses seem to dominate the prevalence of illnesses seen in the Gulf, more serious illnesses have also been reported. A group called Florida released a video, “Spill Children: The Untold Story of the BP Gulf Oil Disaster” which highlights the suffering of children and pregnant mothers. Children have been especially vulnerable to negative health risks. J.V., another Gulf resident, says that her daughters have had eye irritations and cough. One of her daughters “had three eye infections in two months and one double ear infection.” In addition, a number of miscarriages, premature births and disabled babies have been reported in the Gulf since the 2010 oil spill. Emily H of the Gulf corroborates by saying, “I got an email from a Baton Rouge mom whose daughter is losing her first baby at twelve weeks to a miscarriage.” Another study showed that these types of health effects could be felt for decades to come: women exposed to oil toxins could have daughters with reproductive health problems.

In addition, many instances of headaches and neurological problems have cropped up in the Gulf. Chris F. of Florida says that his mother, “has been having headaches for about a week… it isn’t a lingering headache, more like sudden spasms of pain that kind of throb with no real pattern ever 20 seconds to every two minutes, and then go away after about 10 minutes…then show up randomly with the same cycle”. Goldie P. also says that she experiences “extreme bouts of nausea and light headaches…especially at night. I sit on the back porch every night and watch these planes do 25 mile circles…I assume they are spraying something”. This supports the notion that health risks are seen especially after chemical dispersant application. Even more severe neurological problems have seen reported, like memory loss. Chris also stated, “ I have been having more and more trouble with noticing things, refined thought, basically I have waves of my thoughts getting completely jumbled up and it feels as if my intelligence is getting lower…I have been getting sharp pains in the left side of my brain, like a string tugged from the front of my head right above my left eye through the back, like the friction of the string in a straight line… I work out at the beach and the aroma of oil has been weak, but has been coming in with the winds and that’s about when the headaches and wrist issues started.”

Effects of Oil Spill & Dispersant on the Ecosystem & Seafood Supply

The crude oil and dispersants have also had a negative impact on the Gulf’s ecosystem and marine life. All along the coast and in the ocean there are reports of sick and dying aquatic plants, wetland plants, marine fish and mammals, and even residents’ pets.

For example, tar balls and the oil slick have targeted the wetland and shoreline reeds and grasses. Crude oil has seeped into the soil in the marshlands and wetlands and coating the sand and reeds in oil. If the reeds and other grasses are not cleaned, the plants die off and the oil prevents new plants from growing. This in turn ruins the habitat that numerous of species of birds rely on and use for feeding and nesting.

The oil spill has also hit deep- sea corals. In November 2010, a huge amount of dead Gorgonian deep- sea corals were found a few kilometers away from the source of the oil spill. Ecologists say that when corals experience environmental stresses, such as an oil spill, they produce mucus and trap debris (like oil), which can further cause coral health problems. Ecologists also believe that these corals in the Gulf, which now appear brown and loosing tissue layers, have been collecting oil debris and slowly dying for months. In addition, corals in the Gulf that may seem relatively health could have unseen effects from the oil. These seemingly normal corals may have undergone genetic mutations and could become sterilized and unable to reproduce. This could mean that after corals die off, they cannot re-colonize an area. Therefore, the oil spill could have permanently destroyed thousands of miles of deep-sea corals, which also serve as habitats for thousands of aquatic creatures.

Lastly, the Deepwater Horizon has had a detrimental effect on wildlife and fish in the Gulf. Dead pelicans and other sea birds have washed up on shore, many covered in oil form or matted with crude oil from the oil slick. Blood samples showed that several birds had high levels of toxic chemicals, including ethanol and propylene glycol from the dispersant. Unfortunately, Gulf dolphins have also taken a hit from the oil spill. For example, Bottlenose dolphins in Louisiana have exhibited severe health problems according to marine biologist and wildlife officials. The studied dolphins from Barataria Bay, which was heavily exposed to oil, were anemic, underweight, and showed signs of low blood sugar, and lung and liver failure. Many also had low levels of hormones essential for normal metabolism function, strong immune systems, and normal stress response. Some dolphins are beginning to die and the population is starting to decline. In addition, researchers are noticing more cases of strandlings in younger dolphins (such as newborns). Officials are worried that the dolphin population has taken a severe hit and are being seriously threatened.

In addition, Gulf residents and even other American residents are especially worried about the safety of seafood coming in from the Gulf of Mexico; including fish, shrimp, and shellfish. After the spill, an alarming number of fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico have shown signs of disease. Fish are being seen with skin lesions, fin rot, spots, liver blood clots and other illnesses. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Gulf Coast states promised to test, and continue to test, seafood coming from the Gulf and ensure that the seafood is harmless, safe for human consumption, and free of oil and dispersant chemicals. In early May, federal waters in the Gulf were closed to fishing and closures increased as the oil slick spread to other states. The FDA website states that after extensive testing of seafood harvested from the Gulf, federal waters began to reopen. The CDC also says that federal and state officials continue to collect and test seafood, and all seafood tested continues to be free from oil and dispersant contaminants. The FDA says, “Scientists knew already, from real-world experiences (like the Exxon Valdez disaster) and laboratory research, that fish can metabolize and excrete oil. Knowing that finfish can clear it from their bodies within days, shrimp and crabs take a little longer, and shellfish like oysters take the longest time, we tested these various types of seafood individually to make sure we didn't miss anything. The results of the tests, all publicly available, should help Americans buy Gulf seafood with confidence: the seafood has consistently tested 100 to 1000 times lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the residues of oil contamination. We’re very confident that the steps that we have put in place to assure the safety of seafood have worked. We put in an extensive program of sampling, at that time and since then, and the results have consistently been 100 to 1,000 times below our levels of concern. So, we’re quite confident that the seafood that’s in commercial channels is safe."

However, I can’t help but wonder what is causing the disease in fish mentioned in a previous study. Are these lesions, fin rot, and liver spots the result of another environmental disease and not the result of crude oil exposure? While the CDC website and other statements from the FDA and EPA offer some level of reassurance, other studies have come out disputing their claims and scientifically illustrating the effect of the spill on fish. One such study was done on Bluefish Tuna. Scientists have found that the oil has severely depleted the Bluefish Tuna population in the coast. The very sensitive larvae of the fish are extremely vulnerable to the toxins in oil and dispersants. This is unfortunate because the oil slick has infected the breeding grounds of the tuna. If the tuna population is vulnerable to the oil spill, who is to say that the rest of the seafood is not being affected and contaminated?

Economic Impact: Fishing & Tourism Industry

Although the FDA, EPA, and state and local officials reassured the public on the quality of the seafood coming out of the coast, the fishing industry has still taken a hard economic hit since the oil spill. People feared the food coming in from the Gulf and didn’t trust imports from the area or the food local restaurants were serving. Fisherman and shrimpers struggled financially. One Florida fisherman said, “we are in denial right now. Just trying to keep busy.” However, quality of seafood wasn’t the only issue dealt with by the fishing industry. A Louisianan fisher man said, “I'm probably more concerned at this point with Louisiana getting a bad rap in the media and tourism dropping off than I am lack of seafood…even a little bit of media coverage and we’re done." Evidently, the media held tremendous influence on the fishing industry. Even a little bit of bad media could destroy a town, meaning that even if the fisherman’s catch were safe, locals and visitors still wouldn’t purchase it for unfounded fear of contamination.

In addition, the tourism industry in the Gulf has suffered. Before the spill, the tourism industry was the region’s top earning industry, bringing in $140 billion to the Gulf States. Much of the coast is noted for its pristine beaches, good seafood, plethora of outdoor activities, and the wildlife. All of the aforementioned have been affected by the spill. Beaches, covered in tar balls and oil, were closed to the public. Those beaches that weren’t closed still remained void of visitors, for fear of oil contamination or inhalation of oil and dispersant vapors. Even if officials deem beaches safe, people are scared to bring their families to the fish for the fear of unseen illnesses. The decline of tourists translates into less people staying at hotels or lodges, less people visiting restaurants and less people taking part in aquatic recreational activities (boating, parasailing, kayak tours, etc). Therefore, thousands of businesses have fallen on hard economic times since the spill. In Florida, there was a 15 to 20% drop in revenue of hoteliers in the first months after the spill and overall visitation decreased 11% from the previous year. Businesses in all Gulf states experienced cancellations and a dramatic decrease of bookings in the busiest, most profitable time of the year: summer. Although now there are increases in tourism in the Gulf, the impact from the 2010-year can still be felt.

Mental Health Issues & Emotional Outcry

Another serious effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster is the residual mental wellbeing and altered state of mind of the Gulf Coast residents. There is substantial evidence that the disaster has taken a toll on the mental health of the people. Reports from Louisiana claim locals are exhibiting the stress of living with the effects of the spill on their way of life and livelihoods. In communities around the Gulf Coast, communities are experiencing high rates of depression, anxiety and even post-dramatic stress disorder. Kathryn G. laments, “the Gulf Coast is my home…born and raised in Mobile, summers at Gulf shores. My mother’s from New Orleans. It breaks my heart”. Even past-residents of the Gulf Coast are feeling the mental impact: J. G. agrees with Kathryn, saying “ I was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf coast and all of my family is there…I don’t live on the coast now, but I …worry about the effects of the spill on areas I love and family I love have affected my mental and physical health since the spill.” She goes on to state, “the destruction of the environment, exposure to toxins, and economic effects are very hard on people”. It is evident that people are feeling the emotional strain of such a horrific disaster.

Unfortunately, there have been reported cases of suicide. The first recorded casualty of the oil spill was a fisherman from Alabama who aided BP with the oil spill cleanup in the summer of 2010. The man died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and did not leave a suicide note. Yet, family and friends said that the man was severely distraught about the destruction of the coastline and the extensiveness and overreaching nature of the spill. J.V. from Florida corroborates the notion of potentially rising suicide rates, “my mom just told me her eye doctor out of Mobile…hears of people with mental issues and said they are underreporting the number of suicides.”

Another reoccurring emotional theme ringing throughout Gulf residents is the feeling of not being heard or understood by the rest of the nation. Many people that they are left in the dark, forgotten about, or the rest of the US doesn’t truly understand what the Gulf residents are going through.

Some locals feel that others don’t see or know the true widespread and total devastation caused by the oil spill disaster. “People who are not familiar with the way our beaches look under normal conditions fail to see the problem…Some people have the attitude that if they cannot see the oil, then the water is safe but believe me the truth is evident. The lack of wildlife shows that,” says Pensacola, FL resident Erick S.

Other residents feel that the government, BP, and even the rest of the American citizens are failing to do their part in resolving the disaster in the Gulf. Some obvious distaste of BP has been shared. Deborah B expresses her feelings on BP, “I’m afraid …[BP] are too big and too wealthy for the little guy to win against them. I see BP within a few years time and telling any victims of illness, etc. to say ‘see us in court!’” Others felt the media did not do the disaster just and thus affected the public opinion on the oil spill. Deborah B. says, “even though the health issues are getting attention, the news- local and national- no longer seem to consider us news-worthy. We are still having daily reports of oil and tar balls coming in from our local beach reports, but you won’t hear anything about this. Most people want the story to go away.” Anthony G. agrees: “I anticipated public outcry and there was little more than a whimper”, he says, “I expected the media to investigate to find the truth but they sat back and repeated the government’s line.” Many also displayed distaste with the government’s handling of the disaster. Anthony goes on to say, “the was supposed to be a time for change but the President, who ran on pledges of transparency and serving the people, lied on behalf of a corporation that put profits before the welfare of all the people of the Gulf.” Karen H. also shared discontent for the government’s response to the spill by saying, “this oil disaster has no room for politics in it. If we all love our earth, then we fight for it together or we lose the future of our children. We have been polluted, poisoned, deceived and abandoned. If we don’t win our American spirit and our American pride back from the complacent and bovine citizenry, all will be lost.” Others think that this disaster highlights the need to end fossil fuel dependency and the need to find alternative energy sources. “Our Gulf will never be the same in any of our lifetimes,” laments Rhonda B., “but maybe we can learn from this and stop our nasty filthy oil consumption. Remember, you cant just clean filthy water…Let’s work on stopping water pollution. Stop the spilling by stopping the drilling. I am worried about us all. America will never be the same.” Stormy J. goes further by saying, “I have a deep heartache for our Gulf region, as time will show the beauty lost to death and destruction from the worst disaster, planned? How was this allowed to happen on Earth and played down as an oil "spill"? At first glance it looked like our entire ocean was compromised for profits of algae bio-fuels and to turn our ocean along the Continental Shelf into a vast waste of energy and bi-products. Today our Energy Dept has in the works a very detailed grid system, water energy, bio-fuels using algae along the continental US shelf and all over the world start up projects in regards to this new dirty green energy. Was the "Spill" disaster done deliberately to awake the world to new dirty green energy? …Unfortunately, there is an endless web of deceit and every day we live on earth, the webs become more intertwined with corporate greed.”

In addition, long-time Gulf Coast residents have expressed that many feelings experienced after Hurricane Katrina have been rehashed due to the oil spill disaster. This new disaster brings back painful memories of the wounds inflicted by Katrina. Kathryn G. links the Deepwater Horizon disaster to Katrina by saying, “I honestly felt like I had lost a sibling [after Deepwater Horizon]…growing up there, the water was a huge part of it and one of the reasons so many people don’t leave. And there’s so much- the bay, rivers, gulf… Some of my family and friends left after Katrina- after a lifetime. For them, it wasn’t that there wasn’t anything left, it was just too hard. I know family and friends who had PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] after Katrina. I have dealt with PSTD myself and these things [the oil spill] don’t help. ” J.G. agrees, “I have a friend who lives in Oregon who ended up there after Katrina. He has told me the oil spill brought up feelings about the storm. I found when Katrina and the oil spill happened, I felt very isolated. People could see things on TV, but my actual family and homelands were being affected. It’s hard on everyone, but especially those who live there or are from there.” It is heartbreaking that longtime residents are hit, yet again, with a major environmental disaster within just a few years of the previous natural disaster. Many residents had just moved back to the Gulf after fleeing from Katrina. J. G said, “my mom just got back in her house since Katrina in November.”

With little information provided on the health effects, the outcome of the surrounding ecosystem and the uncertain future of the Gulf, many residents understandably felt scared, unsure what the future holds for them. Some even exhibited feelings of hysteria and hypochondria.

The lack of information and response from the government and local officials scared and frustrated Gulf residents. Emily H. says there was a “total lack of response from public health”. Many were scared and unsure of the health effects of the oil spill. “There’s a lot of people who live here on the coast and go out to the beaches to take pictures of the slime and such…We usually spend the 4 of July at the beach…but I don’t want to further sicken myself or my family so I am avoiding the beaches”, said Victoria E. Deborah B expresses, “I’m really scared about the effects on the children, pregnant women, elderly and those with illnesses… I also fear for the long-term effects”. She also worries about herself: “I’ve had some weird symptoms that I could not explain and I thought I just had a ‘bug’”. Many have even considered or have relocated due to the overwhelming uncertainties. Deborah is, “concerned about being able to stay in the area due to health risks from the oil spill.” Chris F agrees, “my family and I will hopefully be relocating, if only for a months until some things are figured out”. Others are worried about the safety of seafood. Deborah B. “noticed a national news report about the dangers of imported seafood. Why can’t they run tests on our local seafood- or are they? I’m dying for some good shrimp and oysters, but scared of them.” The people of the Gulf can hear, see and experience the effects from the oil spill but are only given pieces of the picture and are left in the dark in many aspects. This breeds fear, hysteria, and could even result in irrational, uninformed decision-making. 

Aftermath/ Update/ Outlook for the Future

Today, as we pass the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the oil spill disaster, many are wondering what is currently going on in the Gulf Coast. Have the oil spill cleanup efforts proven effective or are there still remnants of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico? Has the ecosystem recovered? Is the seafood coming from the Gulf still deemed safe for consumption? And lastly, are people still suffering from adverse health effects?

Even though it is true that a majority of the oil spill had been cleaned up, a lot of oil still remains in the Gulf. Remember, it was estimated that 18.6 to 29.5 million gallons of oil had leaked into the Gulf since the explosion. A marine scientist from the University of Georgia, Samantha Joye told the associated press that deep-sea dives done in the Gulf have shown that a large portion of oil still remains. She claims oil still covers the sea floor and deep-water creatures and plants are covered with oil. Joye also says that not only is oil depositing on the sea floor, but soot, methane and other by-products of the controlled oil burnings have collected in the Gulf.

In addition, scientists are seeing an increase in the number of sick dolphins, lesions on fish, deformed shrimp, and other alarming seafood trends. Fisherman are finding evidence of oil contaminated seafood, yet the FDA continues to reassure that the seafood coming out of the Gulf is safe for human consumption. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal reiterates the FDA’s statements by saying, “lf seafood has consistently tested lower than the safety thresholds established by the FDA for the levels of oil and dispersant contamination that would pose a risk to human health. Louisiana seafood continues to go through extensive testing to ensure that seafood is safe for human consumption. More than 3,000 composite samples of seafood, sediment and water have been tested in Louisiana since the start of the spill." On the other hand, actual fishing samples have shown otherwise. Fisherman Tracy Kuhns told the press, “we are finding eyeless crabs, crabs with their shells soft instead of hard, full grown crabs that are one-fifth their normal size, clawless crabs, and crabs with shells that don't have their usual spikes … they look like they've been burned off by chemicals.” Another fisherman reports, “eyeless fish, and fish lacking even eye-sockets, and fish with lesions, fish without covers over their gills, and others with large pink masses hanging off their eyes and gills." The question is do these developmental and physical deformities found in the seafood have no adverse health effect on humans after consumption as the FDA claims or are these outward signs of sickness an indication of unsafe food?

Fish and shrimp are not the only ones continuing to feel the effects of the oil spill disaster. The ecosystem and birds along the coast is still threatened. One major problem is the loss of wetlands and marshes that provide a crucial nesting and habitat area for birds. In addition, coastlines are eroding at a rapid rate and some protected lands have been lost.

Lastly, people are continuing to fall ill, presumably due to the oil spill disaster. Gulf residents are reporting prolonged issues such as headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, memory loss, skin conditions and labored breathing. Mental health, developmental issues and compromised health conditions of pregnant women and children have also been reported. While scientific studies are still underway, there is no scientific evidence equivocally linking oil contamination with these health problems. Despite this, many locals assure that their health problems are due to the oil spill. For example, Louisiana resident Julie Creppel has told the associated press of her and her family’s health issues, which she is positive is a result of the oil spill. She says her children suffer a broad range of symptoms from skin rashes, headaches, stomach pains, respiratory infections, and even heart palpitations. The family requires 17 different prescription medications. The Creppel family is one of many that have experienced medical strife. BP recently settled a lawsuit from 100,000 plaintiffs that included medical damages claims. The Huffington Post reports, “the settlement covers certain chronic respiratory, eye and skin conditions that began or worsened within a couple days of exposure to the spill. Mental health issues, cancers and birth defects are among the excluded ailments, although people can still file claims for these and other unlisted medical conditions, including ones that may develop in the years ahead. The burden is on plaintiffs to prove cause and effect.” Also, many people have had their claims for compensation denied by BP. As mentioned earlier, there has been no definitive link between health problems and the oil spill but Gulf residents are still experiencing side effects associated with oil and Corexit exposure.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy that has had a drastic impact on many facets of life. It has changed our Gulf’s aquatic ecosystem and threatened the terrestrial wildlife. It has altered the lives of Gulf residents, physically and emotionally. It has caused fear and panic with the looming uncertainty about the future, the economy, and even the food we eat. But the oil spill disaster has also rudely awakened us all to call attention to the questionable practices of deep-oil drilling and our heavy dependence on non-renewable resources. As we experience the large aftermath of the worst oil disaster the world has ever seen, many have begun to turn an curious eye towards greener, renewable energy sources in the hopes that we should never have to experience this ever again. The oil spill will affect our country for generations to come and we may not know in our lifetime the full effect this had on our people and environment. The wound of the oil disaster runs deep but hopefully we can start healing as a nation and take steps towards preventing this from reoccurring in the future.

bottom of page