LSU Sociologists: Lessons from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Could Help Prepare for Long-Term Health Impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic
LSU sociologists’ continuing research on outcomes of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill provides a long-term look at how a public health emergency with immediate consequences for some can lead to new and more widespread health problems for others a decade later, in insidious ways—and not because of physical exposure. In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, this should give policymakers pause.
This week marks 10 years after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in
the Gulf of Mexico, leading to the deaths of 11 crew members and the largest accidental
marine oil spill in history. About 200 million gallons of oil coated more than a thousand
miles of shoreline over the next three months, with the most severe oiling occurring
in South Louisiana. There was cascading damage to natural ecosystems and the communities
and economies tied to them; a moratorium on offshore drilling impacted oil and gas
workers in all 64 Louisiana parishes, many of whom lost their jobs or saw their income
go down, and other local industries—from fishing to tourism—suffered.
The immediate health effects for people who came into contact with the oil and chemical dispersants were apparent. Wheezing and shortness of breath, headaches, skin rashes, and burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Less immediate were lung and heart problems that developed over time, especially among cleanup workers. What these effects had in common, however, was that they all could be tied to direct, physical contact with something toxic.
Now, ongoing studies describe the importance of indirect effects on people’s health, including among children. This research shows the most persistent health consequences over time do not stem from physical exposure, but from loss of work and money.
“For decades, sociologists have been examining socioeconomic conditions as a fundamental cause of health disparities. Still, we didn’t necessarily expect the economic losses in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be linked to these persistent negative health outcomes.”—Tim Slack
With support from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GoMRI, LSU sociologists began collecting data while oil was still leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. The 2010-2013 Community Oil Spill Survey studied physical and mental health, including stress, among affected residents. The ultimate focus was on tracking resilience; what was making our communities more or less vulnerable, and what measures could potentially be taken to help? Later, the Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities, led by the RAND Corporation, involved several LSU researchers (including sociologists Matthew Lee, Troy Blanchard, and Tim Slack) with support from both GoMRI and the National Science Foundation to continue to track impacts between 2015 and 2019. In parallel, a third study called Resilient Children, Youth, and Community (RCYC), in collaboration with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University and with support from GoMRI, has continued to gather quantitative and qualitative data from the same respondents at multiple points in time, building off NCDP data from 2014 with follow-ups in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Lead investigator Tim Slack, professor in the LSU Department of Sociology, now has two papers under review where he and his team are starting to draw conclusions from the data they’ve collected from individuals and families over the years.
In two stark figures, Slack and collaborators show how kids who had direct, physical
exposure to the oil spill suffered initial health effects but have seen their health
improve over time to be similar to kids without physical exposure. This is great news.
However, kids whose families suffered job or income loss due the oil spill, not only
suffered initial health effects, but saw their health disadvantage persist over time—relative
to kids whose families were not economically impacted. This pattern holds for both
general child health and the number of recent physical health problems children have
“In Southeast Louisiana, we have to situate the impacts of Deepwater Horizon within the larger context of cumulative disaster and environmental stress.”—Kathryn Sweet Keating
“For decades, sociologists have been examining socioeconomic conditions as a fundamental
cause of health disparities,” Slack said. “Still, we didn’t necessarily expect the
economic losses in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to be linked to these
persistent negative health outcomes.”
Researchers who study the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster often make comparisons with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, which was the worst oil spill in US history until 2010. But there’s one important difference, remarked Kathryn Sweet Keating, PhD candidate in sociology, who’s been working with Slack as a study coordinator on the RCYC project since 2016:
“In Southeast Louisiana, we have to situate the impacts of Deepwater Horizon within the larger context of cumulative disaster and environmental stress. Those who call Southeast Louisiana home may hold in recent memory a timeline of experiences that includes events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon, floods, coastal erosion, and now, COVID-19.”
“Although we see a lot of severe disruptions to health and well-being already with the coronavirus, we can likely count on continued impacts down the road as the socioeconomic fallout mounts.”—Tim Slack
Slack agreed, adding that their findings on long-term health outcomes from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could help Louisiana anticipate continued challenges from the current (and hopefully short-term) epidemic.
“We see how the parts of our state that were slammed by Katrina and most impacted
by the oil spill are now also a hotspot for the pandemic,” he said. “Right now, we’re
very focused on the direct impacts of the virus and how to limit its spread and lower
the mortality rate. These are critical short-term goals, but in the case of the Deepwater
Horizon, our data showed that the socioeconomic disruptions have the longest lasting
impacts. Although we see a lot of severe disruptions to health and well-being already
with the coronavirus, we can likely count on continued impacts down the road as the
socioeconomic fallout mounts.”
Keating is well situated to connect their findings (based on extensive field interviews) with potential policy implications. Keating received dual bachelor’s degrees in social work and sociology from Indiana University in her home state. She then got a master’s degree in social work from Portland State University, later adding a master’s degree in sociology from LSU. After moving to Louisiana in 2016, she became a Licensed Master Social Worker. Now, a PhD candidate in sociology, she combines theory and practice.
“I tend to view social work as applied sociology with an ethical framework,” Keating said. “Empirical evidence is the foundation for much of the work you do in social work, and as a sociologist, I’m constantly looking for empirical evidence, while thinking about possible practical applications. I often use social systems theory as my lens—considering individual, family, community, and larger-scale social functioning—to try to find solutions.”
Slack echoes this broad approach. While studying the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he often finds himself in a transdisciplinary context.
“No one discipline can capture and understand all of the dynamics of a disaster,” he explained. “I work with epidemiologists, ecologists, psychologists, economists. I don’t know that any of us were necessarily thinking that we wanted to be ‘oil spill researchers.’ Yet, here we are.”
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development