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Study finds Deepwater Horizon cleanup workers regained lung function over time

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Photo: Chemical Safety Board

Washington — Decreases in lung function observed among cleanup workers shortly after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster were no longer apparent within the next few years, results of a new study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences indicate – suggesting that some adverse health effects linked to the spill may resolve over time.

Nearly 33,000 cleanup workers and volunteers who participated in the Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill reported numerous health issues, including skin rashes, wheezing and difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, depression and anxiety, and heart attacks.

From 2011 to 2013, researchers from NIESH tested the participants’ lung function using a spirometer. A follow-up was conducted four to six years after the incident. Initially, the researchers observed significant decreases in lung function associated with some exposures during the cleanup, according to a report published by NIEHS. During the follow-up, however, the participants’ lung function returned to normal, including among those who were exposed to burning oil slicks.

“There is evidence that you can improve lung function by quitting smoking, so it is reasonable to assume the same thing could happen by removing yourself from a polluted environment,” Kaitlyn Lawrence, study co-author and NIEHS postdoctoral fellow, said in the report. “However, that might not be the case for effects like cardiovascular disease, mental health and cancer.”

The study was published online April 5 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

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