Exclusive: The human dimensions of oil spills

The Deepwater Hazard oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico threatens incredibly rich and complicated ecological communities.  It also threatens human communities that are dependent upon the Gulf ecosystem for their ways of life.  In the past two years, we have studied how oil spills have impacted every aspect of human society””from individuals’ psychological and physical health to the practices and beliefs of cultures and everything in between.  And, while it is true that the number of spills and the volume of oil spilled have decreased over the past decades, the potential for harm””catastrophic or incidental””has not.

Guest bloggers Dr. Thomas Webler, Dr. Seth Tuler, and Dr. Kirstin Dow shed some light on the human social, health, psychological, cultural, and economic impacts of oil spills.

[UPDATE:  This post has been fixed.]

Dr. Webler and Dr. Tuler are from the Social and Environmental Research Institute, in Greenfield, Massachussets.  Dr. Kirstin Dow is a professor in the Department of Geography and Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments at the University of South Carolina. Webler, Tuler, and Dow are completing a two-year research project into the human dimensions of oil spills.  The project was funded through the Coastal Response Research Center, a research center at the University of New Hampshire funded by NOAA.  For more information about the project visit  Their guest post continues:

Oil spill contingency plans do an excellent job of preparing to protect threatened ecosystems and the marine transportation system (ferries, ports, shipping channels, etc.).  Protecting these systems is fundamentally important.  However, most plans are not as strong in the areas of human dimensions of spills or spill response. Many state and federal responders are skilled at foreseeing and reacting to human impacts, but their knowledge and experience is not formalized in the response plans.

One way to think about the possible human impacts of the Deepwater Horizon leak is by turning to what has happened in past oil spills. We are not judging the actions being taken in the Gulf now, simply highlighting what we have learned about how past spills have affected people and their communities. But, as Bob Brulle pointed out in his earlier posting [20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”], the ability to stop the movement of oil once it is released into the environment and to remove it from the ecosystem is severely limited – even in the best of conditions. Long-term impacts from the oil are even more difficult to anticipate.

Impacts to the physical health of cleanup workers and volunteers

Oil is a hazardous material. Cleanup workers are potentially exposed to multiple toxics.  They breathe fumes from oil and, even when issued protective clothing, gloves, and boots, they often end up with oil on their skin.  One study found that, among all cleanup workers, people who cleaned birds had the highest incidence of skin lesions from contact with oil (presumably because they removed their gloves so they could better clean the bird’s feathers). In the Exxon Valdez, response cleanup workers removed protective gear because of the heat on warm days.  Health risks are not limited only to oil exposure.  Detergents, dispersants, and degreasers also pose risk, although many of their ingredients have not been studied extensively or are not known for proprietary reasons.

Many people are enlisted into cleanup work.  These can include fishermen and other residents in nearby communities.  Unemployed or underemployed people from else where may also join in.  Usually, they lack prior training to work with hazardous materials.  While they must undergo rapid training to work with hazardous materials, these trainings are limited and they lack experience.  Language issues can also hamper training (and medical attention), unless special attention is given to this issue.

Documented health effects among cleanup workers in past events include both acute and chronic ailments, including headaches, nausea, skin rashes, long-term chemical sensitivity, ongoing dizziness, central nervous system damage, dermatitis, leukemia and other blood disease, fetal defects, skin cancer, liver damage, damage to kidneys, chronic respiratory tract irritation and headaches.  One of the most common harms to cleanup workers is back injury.

Mental health impacts

Oil spills and spill responses can cause high levels of stress and psychological trauma, including post-traumatic stress. The economic impacts on livelihood and family aspirations, anxieties associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, the stress of engaging in a large scale court battle, and the loss of valued landscape and ecological systems all contribute to stress on coastal residents and clean up workers.

An immediate source of stress to many has to do with residents’ feared changes in livelihoods and place.  A sense of home, community, and aesthetics — are important factors in shaping the satisfaction that people feel about where they live (place attachment).  This is particularly true for people who make their living while working outdoors.  Seeing vast and beautiful natural landscapes fouled by pollution has a harmful effect on people’s psychological wellbeing. When people’s livelihoods are natural resource-based, the effect can be more pronounced. In Prince William Sound, people talked about feeling that a part of them died when the Exxon Valdez oil inundated the area.  Dangerous levels of post-traumatic stress were reported among cleanup workers and residents in Alaska.  The news talk shows today are already replete with people expressing sadness and anger about this event.

Unemployment and loss of income creates incredible stresses on people’s lives.  This can emerge in various ways, from drug and alcohol abuse, marital problems that include; incidences of domestic violence and divorce, children who become disconnected from homes and parents (who may be working long hours and weeks on cleanup), and social conflict in communities.

Long-term pollution creates permanently contaminated communities.  Although some of it is metabolized, components of oil can remain in the environment for long periods of time. Oil is still easily found under rocks on the beaches of Prince William Sound. People living in the area have had to give up cherished activities such as subsistence hunting and gathering, which has led to a sense of malaise and anger.  There continues to be fear about the long term health effects of low level exposures to themselves and to various species in the ecosystem, including those that formed the basis of the economy, like herring.  The lawsuits against Exxon, which took twenty years to resolve, were another source of constant stress for people.

Social consequences and impacts

Social relationships can change when a community suffers a disaster.  “Corrosive community” is the term scholars gave to the city of Cordova, Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill.  Tensions among people who went to work for Exxon versus those who did not became permanent barriers that restructured the social fabric of the community.  This was further complicated when Exxon offered to pay different people different wage rates, creating anger and tension among those who participated in the response. Reports noted that fishermen who were assigned to another fisherman’s boat during the cleanup had a difficult time taking orders from a new captain.  All these things lead to tensions, which can make working conditions dangerous.

In Cordova, local firms experienced acute labor shortages as workers were stripped away from existing businesses by the high wages offered by Exxon.  Owners scrambled to keep operations open, particularly in restaurants and hotels, whose services were badly needed to support the incoming response personnel. Families had difficulty finding childcare as people swarmed to accept the good paying cleanup jobs for Exxon.  For some Native Alaskan communities many children were left under the care of a few elderly people.  Other people left the region completely, weakening the resilience of the community to cope.  People in Louisiana will experience their particular kinds of social impacts, but keeping schools and daycare centers open is critical. In Cordova, Alaska people speak of the “spill generation” to describe those who grew up in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill and were unable to fish, to learn traditional ways of life, or whose family lives were disrupted, from divorce or ill parents.

People on shore can be significantly affected by cleanup operations.  In 2008 there was an oil spill in New Orleans (the DM932 barge).  The cleanup followed the spill down the Mississippi River. Even in the most remote, small downriver communities, groups of 100 people were stationed for cleanup in multiple locations, which was viewed as something good for local “mom and pop” businesses.  There undoubtedly were benefits.  But small towns are more sensitive to the impacts of hundreds of short-term workers.  Conflict has emerged from the influx of “outsiders.” Particularly in southern Louisiana, because of Katrina, there has been a significant loss of community resilience, including the strong social networks that help a community cope with a disaster.  Companies and businesses that are still limping because of Katrina are in no position to provide finances to help communities recover.

Economic consequences

Studies from the environmental disasters literature show that medium and small-scale businesses are the most vulnerable to stresses associated with interruption of commerce due to limited reserves, the local proximity of patrons, and alternatives While oil spills may increase the numbers of patrons to some businesses, more specialized firms may suffer.  These firms are particularly important to small communities as employers and, in many cases, as long-term features of a community’s social and economic landscape.

Self-employed fishermen are obviously likely to be hard hit, particularly if the fishing ban remains in place for the major fishing season or more than a year. During previous interruptions, boat owners saw their crew leave and take other permanent jobs.  Even when the fishing grounds were re-opened, the crew did not return. Boat owners must also maintain insurance on boats, even when they are tied up at port, a cost that must be borne for the duration of the fishing ban.  When fishing permit values decline, financing may be hard to obtain.  Bankruptcies can occur even when compensation is forthcoming, because fishermen find it impossible to wait.  Moreover, fishing supports a large on-shore support industry including ice makers, box makers, fish processors, engine repair shops, and so on. When fishermen don’t have catch or money, this entire commodity chain from fisher to final retailer is likely to suffer.  The tighter the linkages of a business to the catch from a local/regional fishery, the faster the impacts will be passed on.

Regional economic effects can be felt as well.  Stigmatization of regional seafood is promoted by fears of contaminated or tainted seafood.  It can have immediate and lasting effects on seafood processors, distributors, and retailers in an area much wider than that affected by the spill.  Counteracting the stigmatization of a product can take significant advertising and outreach expenditures.

Cultural impacts

Cultural impacts can be pronounced in Native communities.  However, they can also extend to all communities whose way of life for people in a region defines their identity.  This is particularly true in rural locations where communities are tightly knit. It is also true in rural areas where the distance from major human impacts provides a sense of security.  In addition, every community has its important practices and places that help create common experiences and shared traditions. For instance, in Buzzards Bay Massachusetts, a spill stained the swimming rock at a popular public beach. Swimming to that rock is proof of the capability of young children to swim.  Some residents reported that the fouling of the rock tainted a right of passage for local children and was a blow to the identity of the town.

Subsistence fishing and gathering is an important nutritional source for many people.  This is often particularly true for immigrant populations.  We know that there is a sizable population of Vietnamese fishermen along the Gulf coast.  There is a danger that this spill could affect their way of life. Their English language literacy and skills may not be sufficient alone to guide them in their response.  Uncertainty about the risks due to long-term, low-level exposures to oil can lead to fear about consuming subsistence foods that were once customary, even when the area is deemed “clean.”

Social justice concerns

While the Oil Pollution Act requires that responsible parties pay for all cleanup costs compensation for liability claims up to a specified amount, corporations try to reduce their vulnerability to damage claims. During the Exxon Valdez spill, Exxon required cleanup workers to sign a waiver, which released Exxon of any liability for harm experienced while cleaning up the spill.  It also found a loophole in OSHA regulations that allowed many cases of respiratory illnesses to go unreported when they were classified as influenza.  There are many fishermen who took part in the Exxon Valdez cleanup whose health is still compromised from the cleanup work they did in 1989 and, for the most part, their health care costs were not paid by Exxon or the federal government.

There were reports that initially BP was having fishermen sign a similar waiver, although Louisiana commercial fishermen filed a complaint with the state court and, upon a judge’s finding, BP agreed to hold the offensive provisions of the agreement as void. In the last few days it was reported that in Alabama BP has been giving residents the option of a $5000 payment now if they give up their right to sue for compensation later. These situations are evolving rapidly.

Certain groups of people are more susceptible to falling prey to legal maneuverings of the responsible party.  People desperately short of cash and people unfamiliar with their legal rights and how to exercise them are particularly vulnerable. Another line of concern it that people may be coerced into working cleanup, due household economics, perceived community sentiment, or lack of alternatives. Commercial fishermen may be fearful about future income, so the wages earned during cleanup can be a strong draw.

Under environmental tort law who can receive compensation is limited. While non-use values can be included, the experience is that many claims are not addressed.  Only commercial fishermen are eligible for compensation for direct personal injury or property damage under federal maritime tort law, which was the basis for judgments about the Exxon Valdez. Consequently, in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill compensation was denied to many who lost their livelihoods because of impacts to the resource base. Compensation was also not provided for intangible values and non-market based losses.

The oil spill liability trust fund should, in theory, cover many other claims.  However, law restricts it from paying more than $1billion per spill.  Moreover, even if the limits are raised, there is insufficient money in this account to pay all expected damages.  To add to this, the application process is complicated, requiring extensive documentation and evidence.  Consequently, claims are sometimes rejected.

In closing

It is difficult to anticipate what the full range of impacts will be from the Deepwater Horizon leak. To be sure, the response effort is large and many experienced and dedicated personnel are focused on the problem. Federal and state spill response managers have considerable experience from past spills, and will no doubt consider a range of potential social, economic, and health impacts associated with this event.  However, much is also uncertain, including the duration and amount of leaked oil, weather and sea conditions, the success of novel response approaches such as injecting dispersants deep underwater, and even responses of local communities. Impacts will emerge and be felt over a long time horizon.  Cordova, Alaska is still feeling the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill after 20 years. Even during these early days of this disaster, we are beginning to see some of the contours of the impacts to the people who live along the Gulf coast.

Massive and dangerous amounts of oil and dispersants are in the water. Although some claim that the biological richness of the Gulf region can rapidly breakdown the oil, it is unclear how long oil from this leak will remain in the environment. There are certain to be impacts to people’s livelihoods, directly and indirectly. Impacts will be felt by cleanup workers, residents, families, neighborhoods, schools, and businesses. The biological productivity of the wetlands is under threat. Local governments will see a decline in tax revenue from a loss of the fishing industry. Communities will change dramatically as an army of spill workers descends upon these towns. The seafood sector has already started addressing issues of stigma of seafood products in the entire Gulf region, as perceptions of contamination can wreak economic loss as much as actual contamination.

People will be exposed to oil, dispersants, detergents, and degreasers.  While exposures will not necessarily lead to adverse health outcomes, much is unknown about the toxicity of the oil, its byproducts, dispersants and the exposures that people will receive.  More worrisome is the possibility that these exposures might last for weeks or months.  This is highly unusual because most oil spills are usually resolved on much shorter time scales.

Stress is already being felt in the communities nearest to the slick.  The newspapers are full of stories about people’s anxieties about their jobs and their communities.  Anger at the government and the oil industry is rising.  Comparisons are being made to Katrina, which trigger a whole set of psychological associations that people outside of New Orleans can only faintly understand.

President Obama stated “We’re going to do everything in our power to protect our natural resources, compensate those who have been harmed, rebuild what has been damaged, and help this region persevere like it has done so many times before.” BP’s David Kinnaird said, “We are here for the long haul.  We are here to help.  We are here to do whatever we can, to make this as right as we can.”  These are big and expensive promises.  It won’t be easy to figure out how to compensate whom for harm and, in fact, the law may not even provide a way to do so.

We are in uncharted waters with this disaster.  Sadly, it is likely to become an exemplary case study in how badly people and communities can be injured by an oil spill and its response. Experience with oil spills inside and outside the United States demonstrates that oil spills produce dramatic consequences for people’s lives.  To better prepare for responding to spills, it is wise to learn from experience and be pro-active about planning for how to deal with impacts to humans.  Hopefully, a broad understanding of the human dimensions of oil spill hazards can help these responders make wise decisions.

The project was funded through the Coastal Response Research Center, a research center at the University of New Hampshire funded by NOAA. For more information about the project visit

11 Responses to Exclusive: The human dimensions of oil spills

  1. prokaryote says:

    UPDATE 5/4/10 6:30 pm – And here it is. Today’s MODIS / Aqua image features a break in the clouds (just barely) to reveal much of the oil slick. Fresh upwelling oil is apparent around the location of the leaking well. Long tendrils of slick and sheen stretch to the east and southwest; the total area of slicks and sheen, possibly including patches of open water, is 3,260 square miles. Nearshore, things get complicated: there are pale bands of turbidity, probably caused by the recent stretch of high wind and waves; and a few dark streaks and elongated patches trending northeast that we interpret as low-wind zones (wind shadow, the result of light winds from the northeast this afternoon). But there could be patches of oil slick obscured by these features. To the south, heavy cloud may also be hiding some of the slick from this ongoing spill.

    Image oil slick afternoon may 4th.

  2. prokaryote says:

    Amount of Spill Could Escalate, Company Admits

    WASHINGTON — In a closed-door briefing for members of Congress, a senior BP executive conceded Tuesday that the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could conceivably spill as much as 60,000 barrels a day of oil, more than 10 times the estimate of the current flow.

  3. prokaryote says:

    As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home – “solastalgia” is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. A paper published by Albrecht and collaborators focused on two contexts where collaborative research teams found solastalgia to be evident: the experiences of persistent drought in rural New South Wales (NSW) and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.

  4. prokaryote says:

    Don’t know where exactly to post these images. I think this image is made from the space station – ISS.

    Oil spill of Gulf of Mexico, USA.

  5. Mark says:

    Thank you for providing this much needed perspective.

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    Reality Therapy

    Energy Secretary Dr Steven Chu says off shore drilling is “NOT A MISTAKE”.

    An interview was posted today:

    So off shore oil drilling is necessary for our energy future according to the President and Dr Chu.

    Yesterday, in Huffington Post, Jeanine Molloff reported that students at Washington University “demanded that Chu slash the term ‘clean coal,’ an oxymoron, from his speech.” The speech is to be delivered by Chu at this year’s commencement.

    The very sad fact is that WE STILL NEED FOSSIL FUEL. The President knows it and even the well respected Dr Steven Chu knows it.

    What would happen if oil goes to $150 per barrel, shortages become common, and long gas lines become an everyday occurrence? I know a few of the readers here remember the rationing that happened with the first gas crisis. What if gas rationing became part of everyday life? Would coal-to-gas be used to fill the gap? I don’t really know, of course, but I have a feeling that the continued use of “clean coal” by well informed climate realists, like Dr Chu, indicates a very important future role for King Coal.

  7. Chris Winter says:

    What would happen if oil hits $150 per barrel? Gasoline consumption would drop significantly. Sales of electric cars would take off. And, yes, there would be greater pressure to ramp up offshore drilling here.

    Of course, a great deal depends on when oil hits this price. Would a variety of affordable electric cars be available from different manufacturers? Would deepwater wells have been successfully completed? Would alternative energy still be expanding?

    “Difficult to see…”

  8. Excellent piece, especially documenting the mental health and social/cutural impact. And, even more powerful when combined with the recent report on the mental health effects of climate change, from the Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health. The mental health aspects of our man-made disasters deserve more attention, especially as they are regularly dismissed and ridiculed by the “deniers.”

  9. Edward says:

    6 Michael Tucker:
    Climate Threat to the Planet:* Implications for Energy Policy and Intergenerational Justice
    Jim Hansen
    December 17, 2008
    Bjerknes Lecture, American Geophysical Union San Francisco, California

    If we burn ALL of the fossil fuel:
    1. We humans will surely go extinct
    2. Dr. Hansen’s hunch is that Earth would become another hot dead rock like Venus.

  10. Edward says:

    The threat of CANCER cannot be overstated. Crude oil and coal contain BENZENE. Benzene is the agent you use to give cancer to guinea pigs in the lab. Benzene is volatile, which means you could inhale benzene.

    Do not allow the crude oil to touch your skin. If you do touch crude oil, wash it off immediately.

  11. Edward says:

    I wonder about the usefulness of washing crude oil off of birds and other animals that have been coated with crude oil for more than a few seconds. I think that they will get cancer so soon as to make the effort pointless. I think we will see a grand experiment in cancer in the animals that live in and near the Gulf of Mexico.