Tag Archives: oil

Investigating the health impacts of fracking

Pia Christensen/AHCJ

Pia Christensen/AHCJ

The fracking controversy has been high profile in recent years, and tempers are short on all sides of the subject. Some groups see natural gas and the process used to extract it – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” – as a boon to energy production in the U.S., while others see it as a pernicious threat to people and the environment.

As shown in this New York Times interactive infographic, fracking (sometimes called “unconventional gas drilling”) is a complicated process. It involves high-pressure injection of fluids into natural gas reserves that lie thousands of feet underground, trapped in layers of shale. In addition, there’s a landslide of conflicting information and anecdotal evidence.

So, as a reporter, how do you sift through the various interests and pull out a story that is relevant to your community?

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For psyches, Gulf is Valdez on ‘fast forward’

CNN’s Jessica Ravitz reports that the damage to Gulf communities in the wake of the spill has played out like a faster version of the disintegration of Cordova, Alaska, in the wake of Exxon Valdez. Unfortunately, she writes, that doesn’t mean a quicker route to recovery. It just means a deeper dive into discombobulation and destruction. Ravitz profiles the local victims and those reaching out to help them. In the process, she paints a bleak long-term picture.

Concern about communities sends [environmental sociologist Steven] Picou on an 80-mile drive west to Bayou La Batre, a small fishing town on the opposite side of Mobile Bay. He’s traveling around the Gulf Coast to where people are hurting – to start conversations, impart what he’s learned and teach people how to listen to each other. It’s a response modeled after programs devised in Alaska.

“Unlike a natural disaster where you have a therapeutic community emerging to help you rebuild, we know that in Alaska a corrosive community emerged,” he says. “All of a sudden you have this incredible collapse of community capital.”

He describes how people may self-isolate to cope and how their distrust of others will grow and likely spread. Cynicism about BP, he says, will move on to the federal government, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, local governments, neighbors. Even family.

Ravitz looks at the strong sense of community now present in these places and whether the changes wrought by an influx of new people and money from BP will be permanent. She also reports that domestic violence shelters and hotlines are busier than ever as stress builds and and oil workers, who used to be away from home for weeks at a time, are now stuck on land.

For its part, BP has so far declined a request from Louisiana for $10 million for mental health aid for its residents. Catholic Charities is waiting to hear from BP about another grant that includes about $1.2 million for counseling. Peer-to-peer counseling programs, in which local residents are trained to reach out to other community members, have been launched. One mental health worker says people who were affected by Katrina have been “re-traumatized” by the oil spill.

CDC says monitoring system finds no ill from spill

The CDC has two major monitoring programs active in the Gulf of Mexico during the spill: The National Poison Data System and Biosense.

The National Poison Data System tracks calls to American poison centers. As of July 12, it had tracked 1,221 calls regarding the spill, 722 of which regarded exposure to spill-related toxins such as oil, dispersant or food contaminants. The other 499 calls came from folks seeking information about the health effects of the spill. The majority of the calls have come from the gulf states, but some originated from as far away as California, Michigan and Massachusetts.

Biosense is a public health tool that tracks real-time changes in a population’s health status. Among other things, it tracks more than 80 health facilities on the Gulf Coast and provides states affected by the spill with daily updates. According to the latest available data, it has “found no trends in the number of illnesses and injuries that would require further public health investigation.”

In addition to focusing resources of these two national programs, the CDC has collected state public health monitoring resources from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Rafael Olmeda of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel points out that the CDC has posted “Gulf Oil Spill Information for Pregnant Women,” which generally advises everyone to stay away from oil spill affected areas.


Mental health impact of the BP spill multiplies

Reporters are digging deep into the potential public health and toxicity issued posed by the oil that has been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. The mental component of that health toll, however, has only started hitting the headlines in the past few weeks. And while it maybe too early to follow the lead of Fox News’ Dr. Manny Alvarez and call it “Gulf Oil Syndrome,” the impact, both immediate and secondary, of the spill will need to be followed. Several reporters are off to a good start.

The New York Times‘ Mireya Navarro reports that, thanks to hard lessons learned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, charities dealing with those whose livelihoods have been threatened or suspended in the Gulf are now providing crisis counseling and related mental health services. Her story focused on Vietnamese fisherman who find themselves unemployed and on welfare for the first time in their lives and the immediate impact of the stress and lost income.

Writing for Slate, Marc Siegel took a wider view, considering the less-evident mental damage that could be wrought by the combination of human anxiety and heavy media coverage.

…people tend to react emotionally to a disaster like this and over-personalize the risks. The slightest sweet fragrance of crude-oil vapor causes them to think they or their children will soon fall sick; people fret that they will lose their jobs or their hours will be cut as the region plummets into economic decline. These fears, even though based on rational thinking, can cause obsessive worry, leading in some people to anxiety and depression. The news media’s constant attention magnifies the problem, bombarding us with breathless reports about the oil reaching new lands and the latest failed efforts at containment.

Siegel examined the mental health havoc wrought by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, then considered the circumstances in the Gulf of Mexico, where, the spill is larger, longer in duration and hitting a mental health system that’s still trying to recover from the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Put all that together, and it looks like the mental toll of the BP spill could be as bad as the hurricane itself.

“The oil spill in the Gulf carries with it a very significant risk of PTSD and major depression, as well as other psychiatric disorders,” says psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, author of Living the Truth. “The Exxon Valdez spill was a one-time shock, and that alone caused tremendous suffering on a psychological level. I fear that this event, with its protracted course, could prove far more toxic.”

Siegel’s account is written with the authority and perspective of someone who has spent hundreds of hours researching the topic, and is a strong primer for anyone looking at mental health in the Gulf region right now.

More information

Resources for reporting on health and the oil spill

The Disaster Information Management Research Center, part of the National Library of Medicine, has assembled information about oil spills and health from a number of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, PubMed, TOXLINE and many others.

Oil washes in on Pensacola Beach, Fla., on June 4, 2010. (Photo: R. Scot Duncan, Ph.D.)
Oil washes in on Pensacola Beach, Fla., on June 4, 2010. (Photo: R. Scot Duncan, Ph.D.)

The Department of Health and Human Services also has a page devoted to its health response to the spill. It includes links to oil-spill related pages for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Those pages may provide some useful resources for reporters covering the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as some people on the Gulf Coast are questioning the health effects of the oil spill and the dispersants being used to help clean it up.

Reporters have been looking at the known effects and offering advice on how to stay safe. Mike Stobbe, an Associated Press reporter and AHCJ board member, reports that the CDC and EPA have not set up a system for tracking health complaints related to the spill, but that states have. The Times-Picayune‘s John Pope took a look at health complaints collected by Louisiana’s department of health.

Brian Winter, of USA Today, took a different angle, reporting that Alaska residents suffered significant mental health consequences after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and so Louisiana officials have deployed crisis counselors.

And one AP photographer thought immersion journalism was the way to go – literally. Rich Matthews jumped off a boat 40 miles from shore to get video of the oil and wrote about the experience and about trying to clean off enough of the oil that the captain would let him back on the boat.