UF-led team awarded more than $6.5 million for oil spill projects
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The National Institutes of Health has awarded a University of Florida-led team more than $6.5 million to study the environmental and psychological effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on communities along the Gulf coasts of Florida and Alabama.
The grant was announced today by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and is part of a five-year, $25.2 million program that funds population-based and laboratory studies by researchers at UF and three other universities: Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans, Tulane University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. UF faculty will also partner with scientists at the University of West Florida, University of South Alabama and the University of Maryland.
“We’re providing a comprehensive approach to examining the public health effects of the 2010 oil spill in the Florida/Alabama region, but doing it in close collaboration with communities and community organizations,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and the grant’s principal investigator.
The grant supports more than a dozen faculty and extension agents affiliated with UF colleges and institutes to establish a range of environmental, sociological and psychological studies. Environmental initiatives include partnering with fisheries to provide citizens with a source of trustworthy information about the health of seafood in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers will also use satellite and infrastructure data from before, during and after the oil spill to help determine how fish adapt to their new environments and where people are now catching fish.
“The Gulf is a really unique place because it has a lot of natural oil seeps, in addition to drilling operations,” said project researcher Jason Blackburn, assistant professor of geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We will tease out where oil seeps exist, as compared to where oil from the Deep Water Horizon spill and smaller, more frequent oil spills occurred. The idea is to have a more holistic view of oil in the Gulf so we can understand the environment before the spill.”
UF scientists also will collect data on contaminants in seafood, including hydrocarbons, dispersant and metals, and develop needed risk assessment data germane to Gulf Coast communities, based on regional seafood contaminant levels and seafood consumption rates.
While oil continued to spill in the Gulf last summer, researchers from UF and the University of Maryland interviewed residents in coastal communities of Alabama and Florida, the first study ever conducted to assess the mental health of people not only in the aftermath of a disaster but while it unfolded.
Although the Floridians participating in the study did not have oil hit their communities, the fear of the potential for oil to enter their waters and beaches led to significantly higher levels of depression and substance abuse to nearly the same rates as Alabama residents who experienced oil reach their shorelines. Researchers found that the ongoing stress, especially the loss of employment after the spill, affected the ability of residents in both counties to regulate their emotions and execute some cognitive tasks. This grant will allow public health experts to expand this study to determine people’s long-term ability to cope several years after a disaster.
Eight community partners, including the Alabama Seafood Association, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, and Citizens Against Toxic Exposure, will help the researchers make connections to local organizations to assist in data collection and dissemination of project findings. The Florida Division of Children and Families has also endorsed the project.
“This is a geographic region that has been previously impacted by natural disasters, in the form of hurricanes, as well as man-made,” said project researcher Tracy Irani, a professor of agricultural education and communication in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who specializes in community outreach and communication. “Our goal is to communicate, educate and empower communities along the west Florida and Alabama coastal areas to mitigate losses and increase community resiliency to both natural and human initiated disasters.”
NIEHS is also the lead agency on the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study, known as GuLF, the largest health study of oil spill cleanup workers and volunteers, which is expected to last 10 years and evaluate the health of 55,000 people.