Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing “Evaluating the Health Impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Spill”

As Prepared for Delivery

“Thank you all for attending this important hearing.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – more accurately called an oil well blowout – is an unprecedented environmental and human disaster.  On April 20, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers, a terrible tragedy.  The explosion set about a chain of events that has led to the worst oil spill in U.S history.  The most recent estimates are that the deep-sea well is spewing between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil per day, amounting to more than 50 million gallons of oil spilled to date.  And as of last week, more than one million gallons of dispersants have been used to break up the oil.  Of course, this is a very important issue for the federal government, and in his first Oval Office address tonight, President Obama will discuss the oil spill.

“All of us see the pictures of oil-soaked pelicans, and tarballs on the beach, and we can’t help but think: How will this affect my drinking water?  The air I breathe?  The food I eat?

“That’s why today we’re going to examine how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affects public health.

“There are many different chemicals in crude oil and dispersants, with some more toxic than others.  We know the environmental effects of these chemicals are devastating, but how they affect people is less clear.  Previous oil spills, such as the 1986 Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska, indicate that there are some short-term health impacts from oil.  Breathing in oil mist can cause headaches, nausea and respiratory problems, and touching oil can lead to skin issues.  Children and individuals with health problems, such as respiratory conditions like asthma, are particularly susceptible to oil effects.  Many of these physical health impacts appear temporary, but little is known about the long-term impacts.

“The oil spill may also affect mental health.  One study in Alaska conducted one year after the Exxon-Valdez spill found that residents near the spill were more likely to suffer from anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.

“The scope of the Gulf spill is larger than any other oil spill we’ve had to deal with in the United States to date, and we must do all we can to monitor the situation, prevent any problems from starting and address any problems that arise.

“Thankfully, from what we can tell at this point, there have been relatively few public health impacts among the public and workers at the scene of the oil spill.  As of June 7, about 70 people in the five Gulf States have reported to poison control centers health issues they think are from exposure to oil, including throat irritation, headaches, nausea, cough and dizziness.  More than 20,000 workers have been sent to the Gulf to help clean up the oil, but few have reported illnesses.  However, we need to continue to monitor this situation closely and respond to any potential risks.  We also need to make sure the American people know what is and isn’t a problem, so that they aren’t scared away from eating food or visiting beaches that are perfectly safe.

“And the government is responding to this need.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is leading surveillance effects across the Gulf States for health effects.  The CDC is also putting out fact sheets and information on its website detailing what is and isn’t a health risk and detailed ways to minimize any risks.  The Department of Health and Human Services has dispatched mobile medical units to the Gulf Coast to support the local medical community in preventing and addressing health problems.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is monitoring the safety of cleanup crews and working to ensure that these workers have the information and training they need to do their jobs safely.  And the Food and Drug Administration is working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration making sure contaminated waters are closed to fishing to ensure that the seafood eaten across the country is safe.  Today, we will learn more about the government’s response, and how it will change as the situation in the Gulf evolves.

“I convened this bipartisan hearing today with my friend Senator Enzi to examine the impacts of the Gulf oil spill on the public’s health, and how the government is responding to the crisis.  Unfortunately, the oil is not going away anytime soon; we need to remain vigilant in protecting the public and the workers and volunteers in the clean-up effort.  As I’ve always said, preventing health problems before they happen is key – we need to get out in front of the oil spill to ensure Americans in the Gulf, and all over the country, are safe.

“I thank all of the witnesses for coming today, and look forward to hearing what you have to say.”

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