Carnegie Mellon University

Long-Term Health

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Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill

Oil Spill Stress

When it comes to the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, the catastrophic damage to the region's environment and economy is top of mind. But, how will the disaster impact long-term health?

Earlier this summer, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened a workshop in New Orleans to assess the spill's human health effects. The country's leading science experts were invited to examine a broad range of health issues. Carnegie Mellon's Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology, outlined psychological stress and its implications as it may relate to the spill.

"There isn't a lot of evidence from previous oil spills in regard to long-term effects of health," said Cohen. "I talked about what we know about stress and disease risk and how this knowledge may apply to the oil spill."

According to Cohen's research, there are certain types of stressful events that are linked to increased risk of disease: threats to self-esteem, loss of purpose and meaning of life, loss of feelings of control, perception of unfair treatment and damage to social networks.

"When you look at what is happening to the people in the Gulf region, all of these stressful events are present," he said. "They're losing jobs and family businesses. They don't know how they'll be able to support their families or protect the environment. They're wary of BP's pledge of financial reimbursement. They have to watch as family and friends go through similar — or worse — situations."

Adults who deal with these stressors are more likely to suffer from depression, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, while children are prone to emotional and social conflicts.

However, Cohen's research has shown that these stressful events can also drastically affect physical health — even for healthy people. Stress can lead to coronary heart disease, hypertension and upper-respiratory infections. People with chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma can face increased deterioration or worsened symptoms.

So, is every person in the Gulf area in danger of having stress from the oil spill cause serious long-term health consequences?

"Not necessarily," said Cohen. "Most people can effectively cope with even traumatic events. Those most susceptible to stress-induced effects on health include individuals with low income and low education, those without strong supportive networks, and those who have failed to cope with other stressful events."

Cohen recommends monitoring feelings of stress and depression, sleep quality, diet and exercise, and smoking, alcohol and drug use.

"Under stress, people typically don't take care of themselves," said Cohen, who also underscored the need to monitor especially those with chronic illnesses. "For example, stressed people smoke and drink more, and fail to exercise and eat properly. We need to monitor and watch for individuals who engage in these behaviors over a long period of time. When you're dealing with such a large community — the entire Gulf region — it's a major challenge."

Cohen added, "Hurricane Katrina was only five years ago. In some ways, the oil spill is even a greater stressor because it's ongoing. Its effects may last for years, and have many components that remain unpredictable and uncontrollable."

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