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Feds seek to track oil spill--related health issues.

WASHINGTON -- The federal government is seeking to track acute and long-term health effects in individuals working to clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and is enlisting health care providers to assist, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) testified at a hearing.

Dr. John Howard said at the June 16 hearing that the agency he leads had begun enrolling workers in what could end up becoming a formal registry. NIOSH is eager to have a full list of anyone involved in the cleanup, he said, noting that no such list was compiled for volunteers and others who helped at Ground Zero in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. The lack of such a list made it difficult to go back and correlate either acute or long-term health complaints with exposure, he said.

NIOSH is "trying to keep all health care professionals alerted to our rostering effort," so that all workers who are potentially exposed to any hazards are included in the database, Dr. Howard said. He called on Gulf region physicians to refer to NIOSH any patients they might see who have worked on the clean-up effort.

NIOSH employees have gone into the field and to BP-operated training centers to ask workers to complete a simple one-page questionnaire. The questionnaire seeks demographic data, whether the worker is a contractor, BP employee, or volunteer. It includes specific questions relating to the type of work being done, duration of the work, and whether the person smokes or has been vaccinated for tetanus. Federal officials hope to post the questionnaire online shortly, and are asking physicians who encounter workers to direct them to NIOSH to complete the survey.

So far, 13,000 workers have completed forms, said Dr. Howard, but he estimates that at least another 15,000-20,000 people are working on the clean-up. NIOSH asked for but has yet to receive a full list of BP workers involved, Dr. Howard said. "It's a simple request," he said to reporters after the hearing. Dr. Howard expressed consternation that the oil company had yet to respond.

Clean-up workers will receive the most significant exposure to toxic substances, he said, adding that they would be the best group to study to determine long-term risks. Currently, there are few data on long-term health effects of exposures to oil and to the chemicals, such as dispersants, being used in the clean-up, Dr. Howard said.

The federal government also is attempting to track exposures in the general population. The American Association of Poison Control Centers has directed its 60 local centers in all 50 states to code any calls related to the oil spill so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can track them, said Dr. Howard. As of May 27, there were 93 calls, mostly from Louisiana and Mississippi. In all, 34 callers had been exposed to oil and reported symptoms, including cough, nausea, headache, eye irritation, chest pain, and dizziness, according to data on the CDC's Web site.

Health issues are also being tracked through BioSense, an existing network of health facilities that track health changes in real time and report back to the CDC. There are 86 participating facilities in the five Gulf states. So far, there have been some spikes in skin irritation and asthma in two states; investigations are continuing.

State health departments in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi are also soliciting reports and tracking illnesses. At press time, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reported 109 spill-related illnesses--74 from workers and 35 from the public. In all, 33 were reported through poison control centers; 43 through emergency departments; and others from urgent care centers, clinics, physician offices, and a hotline. Most of the complaints were of odors or inhalation issues. There were nine hospitalizations, all in workers.

Many lawmakers at the hearing said they were concerned that both workers and residents of the Gulf states were being given confusing messages about health and safety and where to report exposures or problems. In addition to the state health departments, the CDC, NIOSH, and BP are also taking exposure reports.

Dr. Howard said that was one reason he was pushing BP to correlate its list with NIOSH. He also said that he supports a centralized Web site for all the spill-related data.

The Environmental Protection Agency is also monitoring the air, water, and soil and issuing reports on its Web site; the Food and Drug Administration is tracking seafood safety.

BY ALICIA AULT

FROM A HEARING OF THE HOUSE ENERGY & COMMERCE COMMITTEE'S SUBCOMMITTEE ON HEALTH
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Title Annotation:PRACTICE TRENDS
Author:Ault, Alicia
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2010
Words:765
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