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Grantees Host Sebelius During Gulf Visit

By Robin Mackar
August 2010

Beverly Wright, Ph.D., Tyronne Edwards, Kathleen Sebelius and Gail Edwards
After a round of plain talk and frank discussion, participants posed for a photo. Shown, left to right, are Wright, Edwards, Sebelius, and attendee Gail Edwards. (Photo courtesy of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice)

For U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius ( Exit NIEHS, a visit to New Orleans and Grand Isle Beach, La., July 10 was hardly a typical Saturday morning. During a community roundtable at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans, Sebelius engaged in candid discussions with concerned Louisiana fisherfolk, community leaders, BP oil spill workers, and local government officials about public health and mental health implications of the Gulf oil spill. 

NIEHS grantees Beverly Wright, Ph.D., Deep South( Exit NIEHS executive director, and her colleague Myra Lewis, Ph.D. were the lead organizers of the event, which was also attended by HHS officials James Galloway, M.D., health liaison to the National Incident Command, and Eric Broderick, D.D.S., deputy administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Wright, the moderator of the event, and Lewis are well known in the community and throughout the country for their environmental justice efforts. They were able to gather an impressive group of residents, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, U.S. Representative Joseph Cao (R-LA), graduates from the minority worker training program, Vietnamese community fishers, and other community members.

Deep South receives funding through the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) and oversees safety training programs in several states affiliated with the center. WETP Director Chip Hughes and his staff worked with communications staff at NIEHS and HHS to coordinate the visit.

Key Areas of Concern

The fishermen and workers identified several key areas of concern during the informal roundtable discussion with the HHS Secretary.

Mental health and economic concerns were at the top of the list of concerns expressed by community members in attendance. Tap Bui, a health outreach coordinator for the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, provided several examples of how Vietnamese fisherfolk have increasing anxiety and stress levels as they wait by the phone for a call to work. "Having a job and working is a number one priority for Vietnamese fisherfolk, even above their health concerns," Bui explained. Others said there need to be more mental health services available and to encourage more collaboration among the Veterans Administration hospital systems to provide services to veterans.

Workers also expressed concerns about burning sensations in their eyes and throats. Although they felt they received adequate training to protect themselves, they said they were worried about long-term health effects and wanted more access to health clinics. The workers also complained that the wages being paid were not sufficient for the level of chemicals they may be exposed to.

Another theme that emerged was a desire by the community to have the federal government more involved in the daily response efforts of the oil disaster. Reverend Tyronne Edwards of Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Plaquemines Parish discussed a disconnect between the needs of the community and BP, especially when it comes to addressing health concerns of the workers and their families. Sebelius was interested in hearing from the mayor and other local leaders about the community's needs for more medical workers.   

The Secretary listened intently throughout the meeting, thanked the organizers, and gave a special thanks to the community for coming out on a Saturday morning to share their concerns.  "We are committed to working with state, local, and community partners to ensure people have access to needed services," said Sebelius. 

Wright closed the meeting by saying the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice will continue to work with HHS, other federal and local government officials, and community leaders to help resolve the critical community concerns raised at the meeting.

"The Secretary's presence with us, and the time she spent talking with us, conveyed a sense of her value for our community and her commitment to the sustainability of our culture and quality of life," Wright said after the visit.

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

NIEHS on Duty in the Gulf

NIEHS continues to play a pivotal role in the Gulf Oil spill response efforts. Some recent highlights include the following:

  • The NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) effort continued to expand in July. Four more teams of NIEHS trainers were certified in July and are now delivering various BP training modules in Louisiana, Mobile, Ala., and Key West, Fla. Examples of the training being provided include 4-hour courses for workers doing on shore cleanup activities, additional training to Vessel of Opportunity workers, and safety briefings for dock workers.
  • To date, approximately 100,000 people throughout the Gulf Coast have been trained by BP or its training contractor PEC/Premier, using NIEHS WETP training materials.
  • NIEHS has distributed more than 8,000 "Safety and Health Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers" ( guides to front-line responders, instructors, and safety officials.
  • WETP continues to perform quality assessments of BP required training and to offer suggestions for improvement.
  • NIEHS is gearing up to launch a health study of oil spill clean-up workers and volunteers in late Fall. The Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLF) is being designed and led by the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. Initial funding for the study was announced by the NIH director in June (see story ( With much input from local, state, federal agencies, and community partners, the study is expected to evaluate more than 20,000 clean-up workers for a range of possible health effects, including respiratory, neurobehavioral, carcinogenic, immunological, and mental health disorders.

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