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NIEHS joins NC oil spill forum

By Eddy Ball
September 2010

Chip Hughes, NIEHS Workers Education and Training Program (WETP) Director
In the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Hughes spent time on the ground in Louisiana and Alabama with members of his WETP team. WETP grantees trained the trainers of workers involved in the cleanup effort. (Photo courtesy of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health)

Bill Gentry
Organizer Bill Gentry, above, is a faculty member of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, assistant director of executive programs, and an expert in community preparedness and disaster management. (Photo courtesy of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health)

USCG Lt. Shannon Scaff
USCG Lt. Shannon Scaff is the incident management chief at Sector North Carolina. He presented an overview of USCG pollution response with an emphasis on the North Carolina coast. (Photo courtesy of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health)

Julie Casani, M.D.
Julie Casani, M.D., is the director at the N.C. Division of Public Health, Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. Her presentation outlined the systems in place for mounting a response to the public health effects of an oil spill in North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health)

While the experts think it's unlikely oil from the Gulf will reach the shores of North Carolina, the state is coordinating a comprehensive response just in case it does.

Organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and co-hosted by the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the "One Health" Forum on NC Oil Spill Response, Recovery, and Health Effects( Exit NIEHS July 29 drew approximately 100 citizens and officials to a full-day meeting and workshop in Chapel Hill, including NIEHS Workers Education and Training Program (WETP) Director Chip Hughes.

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Forum attendees were a diverse group, ranging from experts from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, marine scientists, medical professionals, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) senior staff, and N.C. coastal county managers to business and tourism representatives, state officials, and concerned citizens. They gathered at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill to learn more about the impact of oil spills on people, animals, and the economy, and to explore the ways they can position North Carolina to be a step ahead of the ripple effects of the Gulf oil spill and similar disasters in the future.

Hughes reports on NIEHS initiatives

Hughes is part of the federal response to the Gulf oil spill. He and his staff are coordinating training for thousands of workers involved in the cleanup efforts. Hughes spoke of lessons learned in past disasters, including the World Trade Center attack, Hurricane Katrina, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, during his presentation on "Oil Spill Health Effects."

In his presentation, Hughes reviewed NIEHS efforts to help keep workers safe during oil spill response and cleanup operations. He also urged his audience to keep in mind that, as dramatic as the immediate effects of a disaster are, it's important to keep in mind the long-term health effects that emerge long after the media have turned their attention elsewhere.

"We're still seeing the impact of 9/11 and Katrina on the health of responders," he said, "and it's certain that the effects of oil and dispersant as well as the trauma experienced by people in the region will impact health in the Gulf and beyond for years to come."

Presenting a catalogue of NIEHS activities in response to the Gulf oil spill, Hughes pointed to the more than 100,000 people throughout the Gulf Coast who have been trained by BP or its training contractor PEC/Premier, using NIEHS WETP training materials. NIEHS has distributed more than 10,000 "Safety Awareness for Oil Spill Cleanup Workers"( guides to frontline responders, instructors, and safety officials.

Looking years ahead, he said, NIEHS is gearing up to launch a health study of oil spill clean-up workers and volunteers in late fall. The Gulf Workers Study (GuLF) is being designed and led by the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch ( with special funding announced in June by NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. With much input from local, state, federal agencies, and community partners, the study is expected to evaluate more than 20,000 cleanup workers for a range of possible health effects, including respiratory, neurobehavioral, carcinogenic, immunological, and mental health disorders.

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