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Four schools get $25M for oil spill health studies

 Studies at four Gulf Coast universities will focus on continuing fears that last year's oil spill is making people sick, especially if they eat lots of fish. Two of the studies based in Louisiana will look at women, while one of them also will study children.
 
All of the $25 million set of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health will look at people's mental or physical health over the next five years. Three will also look for oil- and dispersant-related chemicals in fish landed by people whose catch makes up a big part of their own food.
 
During and after the BP PLC oil spill, federal and state authorities stressed that no unsafe seafood was sold and that the entire Gulf is now safe for fishing. But many people who live in fishing communities just don't believe that, Dr. J. Glenn Morris, lead researcher at the University of Florida, said Thursday.
 
"When you get back into these areas along the coast, what you get repeatedly is, 'We really don't trust BP and we don't really trust the government, either,'" he said.
 
His studies include buying seafood from subsistence and sport fishermen in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and testing it for contamination, including patterns of heavy metals associated with oil. He also plans to use GPS mapping data to see whether the fish or shellfish were taken from areas with natural oil seeps or other sources of oil.
 
BP's Macondo well spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil over five months after the April 20, 2010, explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig. The company provided about $3 million of the money being used to look for lingering physical and mental health effects, but is not involved in the program or any of the research, NIH and its National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences said.
 
Most of the physical illnesses reported during the spill were among cleanup workers and apparently the result of fumes. In June, the attorney overseeing the payments from a $20 billion compensation fund told a Louisiana legislative committee that he had not seen any claims for medical costs or scientific evidence linking cleanup measures such as chemical dispersants to health problems. Kenneth Feinberg also said that if such claims can be scientifically proven, they might not show up for years.
 
Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine is getting $6.5 million for its work; the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Public Health $3.5 million, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston $7.8 million and the University of Florida at Gainesville about $7 million.
 
Most are doing multiple studies. All four consortiums will also work together and with community organizations - 20 just in Florida.
 
Those community groups helped decide what to investigate. They also will explain the results to the groups they represent, so people will understand - and, officials hope, accept and support - the findings, said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, lead investigator of Tulane's study of nearly 2,000 women who are pregnant or could become pregnant.
 
This round of research is looking at the general public. Cleanup workers and volunteers are the subjects of a separate, 10-year study planned to involve 55,000 people.
 
One of three studies at Tulane will check blood from 1,800 women for possible oil spill chemicals, levels of stress hormones and - if the budget allows - mercury, lead and cadmium. It will also see if those affect pregnancies and decisions about family planning, as well as anxiety and depression.
 
Researchers also will go out with Vietnamese fishermen, keep part of the catch to analyze, and check people in about 100 households for whatever contaminants are found in the fish.
 
Researchers in all three states will also be looking at just how much fish people eat in fishing communities, and whether they eat so much fish that contamination levels set for the average U.S. resident might leave them in danger.
 
LSU hopes to get 6,000 women and 2,000 children to agree to give two blood and urine samples as well as two phone interviews for psychological surveys. About two-thirds of the women would simply live in one of the seven parishes most affected by the spill, and 2,000 would be wives of men who worked to clean it up, lead researcher Edward Trapido said.
 
The Texas fish study will look at oysters, blue crabs, shrimp and speckled trout taken by members of the United Houma Nation in Terrebonne Parish, La., and by two different fishing communities in Biloxi, Miss.: Vietnamese Americans and African Americans.
 
If oil- or dispersant-related chemicals are found, the lab will look for chemical "fingerprints" of the Macondo well, lead researcher Cornelis "Case" Elferink said.

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Photo courtesy of WBRZ

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