Fear of the unknown leads to anxiety in many communities

This post, written by Missy Partyka, originally appeared in the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium’s weekly staff blog.

What do the COVID-19 pandemic and the use of dispersants during oil spills have in common? In a word: anxiety. In a few more: fear, concern, distrust and a perceived lack of transparency. During the global pandemic, many coastal residents have been hurt economically if not necessarily physically. They may have experienced declining mental health even if they have not been infected by the novel coronavirus. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DWH) in 2010, communities across the Gulf suffered in many similar ways. The use of dispersants to combat the spill may have exacerbated these impacts for many; not because the dispersants themselves were harming people, but rather because their widespread use was something new, something novel, something unknown. Not to mention that media coverage was nearly constant. Sound familiar?

Beginning in April of this year, my colleagues at the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC) and I redeveloped a peer-listening program originally deployed in the wake of DWH. It was apparent that many of the reactions community members were having to COVID-19 echoed those of 2010, and so it was believed that members of MASGC and the entire National Sea Grant network would benefit from updated training on peer-listening and the symptoms of declining mental health. To fit in with the times, the entire training series was done virtually; the videos and materials for which can be downloaded here.

Three-part webinar series addresses impacts of oil spills on human health

In addition, the Gulf Sea Grant oil spill science outreach team, has developed a three-part webinar series focused on the true, potential and perceived impacts to human health following an oil spill. Parts one and two, held in June and July, focused on impacts to air quality and water quality, respectively.

Part 3, the final in the series, will be held 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. CDT on Thursday, Aug. 27, and will address the use of dispersants. Topics will include not only studies on potential physical impacts but also mental health effects. The speakers are from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but they share a common interest, communicating the risk associated with the use of dispersants during oil spill response.

Deepwater Horizon Response
A C-130 Hercules aircrew drops an oil dispersing chemical May 5, 2010, into the Gulf of Mexico as part of the Deepwater Horizon Response effort. Members of the 910th Airlift Wing are in Mississippi to assist with response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The C-130 aircrew is from the 910th Airlift Wing at Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

Dr. Richard Judson, a research toxicologist and modeler with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was one of the researchers tasked with determining the potential toxicity, or harm, of multiple potential chemical dispersants, including Corexit, during DWH. He will discuss his research and share how toxicity studies are used to determine the use of chemicals in the environment.

Dr. Thomas Coolbaugh is a former research chemist and technology adviser at ExxonMobil and is now the project manager at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Ohmsett facility in New Jersey. Tom has a demonstrated ability to communicate with a wide variety of audiences about response strategies in the oil and gas industry, as well as the use of chemical dispersants during an oil spill.

Dr. Melissa Finucane spent the last several years as the director of the GoMRI-funded Consortium for Resilient Gulf Communities tasked with assessing and addressing the public health, social and economic impacts of DWH. Melissa, with an additional role as the senior social and behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, will discuss her research on the impacts risk communication and community perception on mental health in communities affected by DWH.

Updated dispersants graphic
Dispersants, though rarely used, can be applied to oil spills. The surfactant molecules in dispersants help oil and water mix, creating small oil droplets that are more easily broken down by microbes than an oil slick. (Graphic by Anna Hinkeldey)

Registration is now open for this event. Talks by these speakers will be followed by a live Question/Answer session.

All talks will be recorded and available online, just as they are for parts one and two of the series.

We look forward to sharing the work of these scientists with our community members and to having an open and engaging discussion about their work on this important topic. Please join us!

In the meantime, catch up on the publications the oil spill outreach team has written on dispersants as well as videos from previous seminars on the topic.