UTMB-led researchers awarded $7.8 million for Gulf spill study
Scientists will work with community groups to determine seafood safety
GALVESTON, Texas — In an effort to determine the vulnerability of affected Gulf Coast communities following last year’s BP oil spill,the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has awarded a five-year $7.85 million grant to a consortium of university researchers and Gulf Coast community groups led by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to examine the safety of Gulf seafood and the long-term health of those who consume it.
Investigators from four other universities are participating in the Gulf Coast Health Alliance: health Risks related to the Macondo Spill (GC-HARMS) consortium: the University of Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Louisiana State University and the University of Arizona. Community groups involved at primary research sites include southeast Louisiana’s United Houma Nation; the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families; and the Center for Environmental and Economic Justice, based in Biloxi, Miss.
“We’re going to look at the possible impact of the Gulf oil spill on seafood safety, with the major driver being the concerns of local fishing communities in the Gulf Coast region,” said UTMB professor Cornelis Elferink, principal investigator on the project. “The community has been instrumental in shaping the issues that are going to be addressed by our research, and they’ll be continuously involved as the project progresses, from initial sample collection to communication of the results.”
BP’s Macondo well was capped on July 15, 2010, and concerns remain about the environmental effects of the 4.4 million barrels of oil that scientists estimate the well released into the Gulf. GC-HARMS will center on measuring the distribution in the weathered oil of petrogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are suspected of being carcinogenic.
“We’re looking at PAH contamination in fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters that people eat, we’re looking at the toxicity of these compounds and we’re looking for evidence of exposure and effect in the affected population,” Elferink said.
Previous PAH analyses have focused almost exclusively on 16 EPA-benchmarked PAHs referred to as “pyrogenic” — that is, formed by burning. By measuring exposure to PAHs formed by natural “petrogenic” processes, the study will be breaking new ground.
“Most of the oil remains in the marine environment, possibly due to the extensive use of dispersants preventing its removal by burning or collection at the sea surface, and the potential exists for long-term human exposure to petrogenic PAHs which have not been examined much to date from a toxicological or human health perspective,” Elferink said.
In order to accomplish their goals, the researchers will work closely with their community-group partners, using what is known as a Community-Based Participatory Research approach.
“To do an investigation of this kind you really have to have help from the community, because they know so much that we don’t,” said UTMB associate professor Sharon Croisant. “They’re helping us find local fishermen who we’ll be training to do the sampling — not just from the commercial catches but also from the bycatch, which they eat. They’re also our partners in looking at the way seafood is distributed in these subsistence communities, which is frequently by barter, often through extended families.”
In addition, the groups are also working with the researchers to assemble a clinical cohort of people from whom they can take blood and urine and other samples that can be analyzed for petrogenic PAHs and metabolites. “We want to see if we can correlate the levels of PAH in the blood and PAH in the fish or shrimp or oysters, whatever they’re eating,” Croisant said.
The investigation will extend beyond the toxicology and health effects of PAHs to include a study of the psychosocial fallout from spill, attempting to detect changes in stress through blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers will also evaluate the resilience of the study communities, seeking factors that have helped or hindered their responses to the oil spill and the series of Gulf Coast hurricanes that preceded it and looking for ways to improve resilience in the face of possible future disasters.
Finally, GC-HARMS includes an outreach component aimed at informing Gulf Coast residents of its discoveries and other relevant health-related research. In addition to the three community groups involved in conducting research, three other organizations have been enlisted for this effort: the South Bay Communities Alliance of Coden, Ala., the Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Phoenix, La., and Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing in Thibodaux, La.
“Our partners are really tied in to their respective communities, and they offer us a variety of ways to get messages out — everything from radio public service announcements in English, French and Vietnamese, to environmental medicine workshops for health providers,” Croisant said. “As always in the CBPR process, the community will be involved at every single level.”
ABOUT UTMB Health: Established in 1891, Texas’ first academic health center comprises four health sciences schools, three institutes for advanced study, a research enterprise that includes one of only two national laboratories dedicated to the safe study of infectious threats to human health, and a health system offering a full range of primary and specialized medical services throughout Galveston County and the Texas Gulf Coast region. UTMB Health is a component of the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas Medical Center.