Study Finds Oil Spill Cleanup Workers More Likely to Experience Asthma-like Symptoms

The Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLFSTUDY), an ongoing study led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), found that workers involved in the cleanup of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with asthma or experience asthma-related symptoms one to three years after the spill. Published in Environmental International, the GuLFSTUDY is “the first study to ever look at specific chemicals from oil spills and link them to respiratory diseases,” according to Dale Sandler, PhD, lead researcher and chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch.

Data were collected and analyzed from 19,018 oil spill response and cleanup workers and an additional 5,585 individuals who had completed the required safety training but did not work on cleanup. Worker’s jobs varied from administrative duties to mopping up crude oil while aboard sea vessels and decontaminating equipment and wildlife. Non-workers were also included in the study and considered an unexposed control group.

Researchers examined the relationship between doctor diagnosed asthma or asthma-related symptoms, the function of jobs held by cleanup workers, and the resulting exposure to hydrocarbons. Due to the study population being socioeconomically vulnerable and reporting limited access to medical care, non-doctor confirmed asthma cases were included to minimize underreporting.

Additionally, researchers assessed associations of outcomes within a subgroup of chemicals in crude oil known as BTEX-H. According to the U.S. Clean Air Act, BTEX-H (comprised of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and n-hexane) are chemicals classified as hazardous air pollutants. “The more a worker was exposed to these crude oil chemicals, including total hydrocarbons, the individual BTEX-H chemicals, and the BTEX-H mixture, the more likely they were to have asthma symptoms,” said Kaitlyn Lawrence, PhD, lead author of the study and staff scientist in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch.

While the GuLFSTUDY is ongoing, researchers reported that workers directly involved in operating, maintaining, or refueling heavy cleanup equipment had the highest incidence of asthma. Five percent of cleanup workers reported asthma and asthma-like symptoms compared to only three percent of non-workers. The GuLFSTUDY continues to monitor nearly 33,000 participants enrolled in the original study for potentially adverse health outcomes and report any important public health news.