Gulf residents and workers face heat exhaustion, mental stress

Residents and relief workers along the oil-ravaged Gulf of Mexico could experience a host of short- and long-term health problems, including respiratory ailments, neurological symptoms, heat exhaustion and mental stress.

Emory University environmental health expert Linda McCauley, RN, PhD, is one of more than a dozen national scientists participating in a two-day Institute of Medicine (IOM) workshop in New Orleans exploring some of the potential health risks that people in the Gulf could face.

Short term, McCauley says, there could be reports of respiratory problems from people who’ve inhaled gas fumes as well as neurological issues such as dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting. In addition, exposure to oil may cause eye and skin irritation.

Heat stress is also a major concern for workers in the Gulf, says McCauley, dean of Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

“On some of the days it’s been so hot they’ve only allowed workers to work 12 minutes out of the hour,” she says. “A lot of new workers are being brought in [to clean up the oil]. These are workers who don’t do this for a living and may never have been exposed to this type of heat before and that’s a serious issue.”

In addition, McCauley says attention should be given to the impact the spill will have on the mental health of people in the region, many of whom have already lived through other disasters.

“What’s really specific to this population is the impact of cumulative stress,” McCauley notes. “Many of these communities have already been hit with hurricanes and now we’re laying another disaster on top of that. I think it’s imperative that we work proactively to give these communities the help that they need.”

The IOM workshop, “Assessing the Human Health Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: An Institute of Medicine Workshop,” convened today and unites experts from the U.S. scientific community, academia, and public health with expertise in addressing health effects after disasters such as the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina. Scientists at the meeting will examine a range of health issues related to the Gulf oil spill and determine how best to proceed in detecting and monitoring health risks and outcomes in the future.

Hear McCauley talk more about the potential short- and long-term health effects of the Gulf oil spill.

Watch a live Web cast of the IOM workshop June 22 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET.

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